The importance of trees has long been underestimated — even by those with no ax to grind. They provide oxygen, improve air quality, conserve and help cleanse water, preserve soil while absorbing potentially harmful nutrients, nurture wildlife, may represent the planet’s best defense against climate change and much more. But that hasn’t kept builders, whether in Maryland or beyond, from following a familiar pattern of development: cutting down forests in order to accommodate growth. Build a house? First, you clear much of the land. A shopping center? The same. And then there are the roads and infrastructure from schools to power lines where trees and forests are treated as obstacles as well. Certainly, state, county and municipal governments have taken steps to discourage deforestation and protect some woodlands over the years that have proven modestly helpful. But when push comes to shove, the long-espoused goal of allowing no “net loss” of trees in Maryland has seemed a far-fetched dream.
Last month, the Anne Arundel County Council unanimously passed County Executive Steuart Pittman’s forest conservation legislation that supporters proudly proclaimed as Maryland’s most rigorous ever countywide tree protection ordinance. And it was until Dec. 2. That’s when the Howard County Council approved on a 4-1 vote Howard County Executive Calvin Ball’s even-tougher plan to force developers to either keep trees, replace them with new trees or pay a fee to the county which, in turn, would use the money to protect and expand forests. Neither measure can technically be described as “no net loss,” but the gap is shrinking. What’s especially remarkable about these events is that both counties are under significant development pressure (and developer political influence). Yet that might also be the secret to their success: Residents of both have become increasingly frustrated with the adverse impacts of new construction.
There is no free ride for forest conservation, of course. Builders have protested both measures (as well as a similar effort in nearby Frederick County) on the grounds that it will effectively raise costs for home buyers, reduce land values and discourage growth. And that’s certainly true — at least theoretically — although exactly how much remains open for debate. The problem with that argument is that there is a high cost to taking no action against deforestation as well. If Maryland is serious about doing its share about climate change or about cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, a greater abundance of trees is vital. Instead of forest preservation, this state should be at the vanguard of forest expansion. What’s going on in Howard and Anne Arundel is perhaps a first step.
Of course, Maryland could settle for this county-by-county effort to protect trees but better yet would be a strengthening of existing statewide forest conservation protections. The General Assembly has been debating that option for several years but has yet to take action. A bill to guarantee that 40% of Maryland remains forested wilted in the House last year. Still, its chances may improve as more counties line up behind Anne Arundel and Howard. After all, setting the standard at the state level would seem appropriate given clean air, clean water, soil conservation and all the other benefits of maintaining forests have a statewide (if not nationwide) impact.
Finally, we would encourage both Executives Ball and Pittman to balance this initiative with a renewed focus on affordable housing in their respective jurisdictions. If forest conservation raises developer costs, that puts a greater onus on counties to nurture homes, condos and apartments that working people can afford. Smart growth development and low-income housing need not be mutually exclusive, of course. It’s single family detached homes for the upper classes that usually run most afoul of forest conservation standards, not higher density multi-unit buildings that allow for shared open space. But given how few units of affordable housing are being built in either county now, such an initiative is overdue no matter what environmental protections are added.
Protecting trees may sound simple, but it’s not easily accomplished. Mr. Pittman’s bill, for example, was initially weakened by the council and required pro-environment community activists and other supporters to speak up to reverse course. But the cause is only going to be helped as surrounding communities recognize the benefits of protecting wooded areas — and that “sustainable” development is the only viable path to follow.