Invest in green infrastructure

The Baltimore Sun

The stimulus package President Barack Obama signed Tuesday contains tens of billions of dollars to repair and expand the nation's "infrastructure" - its networks of highways, bridges, rail and power lines. Renewing the transportation infrastructure alone will provide some $800 million in Maryland, $800 million in Virginia and $897 million in Pennsylvania.

But what about the equally vital green infrastructure: the trees that shade city streets, the forests that sop up air and water pollution and trap climate-changing carbon dioxide?

Environmental managers around the Chesapeake Bay say the stimulus directs $2 billion to $3 billion nationally toward green infrastructure "and other innovative water quality measures." Beyond that, the package contains tens of billions for the environment and energy. To the extent states in this region can use such funds to renew forests, they could make a real contribution to saving the bay.

This is an area with immense and cost-effective potential that is easily overlooked - the forest doesn't charge for services, it works for free, forever, if we just protect it. These "ecological services" are conservatively worth $24 billion a year, according to The State of Chesapeake Forests, a recent book by the Conservation Fund.

The study did not include all of the forest land's well-documented abilities to cleanse both air and water, or attempt to value its scenic attributes. Nor did it include the value of the wood-products industries in the Chesapeake watershed, estimated at $22 billion a year, with 140,000 related jobs.

From the standpoint of water quality, the greatest value of bay forests is their ability to absorb nitrogen. Forests across the watershed are removing an estimated 184 million pounds of nitrogen each year. The forest stores and filters six times more rainwater than other open spaces, such as grass.

Even in a developed watershed such as the Jones Falls in Baltimore, trees are controlling and cleansing stormwater enough that it would cost $3.8 million a year to duplicate their services by building ponds and other control devices, according to a study by American Forests, a conservation group.

Opportunities to use stimulus money to create jobs by planting more green infrastructure abound, says Sally Claggett, liaison from the U.S. Forest Service to the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program. The goal of the federal-state Chesapeake restoration is to line 70 percent of all streams and rivers feeding the bay with forested buffers at least 35 feet wide. To date, about 6,100 miles of buffers have been planted, which leaves a whopping 22,000 miles to go. In addition, many cities also have a goal of increasing their tree canopies to improve air quality.

Plenty of green infrastructure projects are "shovel ready." Maryland has an innovative GreenPrint program that maps all the state's ecologically important forests and ranks them in terms of protection. The gaps in this green infrastructure that remain in need of protection and restoration total nearly a million and a half acres, compared with about 650,000 acres already protected.

There's spectacular precedent for combining green infrastructure and national economic stimulus: the old Civilian Conservation Corps, created as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal approach to the Depression. During about a decade, the CCC employed some 3 million men across the nation, planting more than 3 billion trees on more than 2 million acres.

Planting trees today is just as important as it ever was. The cost around the bay to put in a 2-year-old specimen, Ms. Claggett says, would be less than a dollar a tree.

With the bay watershed losing 100 acres of trees every day - more than a square mile a week - and given the huge value of the forest for clean water, clean air, reduction of carbon, production of wildlife and sheer beauty, it's clearly time to rebuild the natural as well as the human-made infrastructure.

Tom Horton, a freelance writer, covered the bay for 33 years for The Baltimore Sun and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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