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How Maryland is like Brazil in all the wrong ways | COMMENTARY

A firefighter checks his GPS device as fire consumes land deforested by cattle farmers near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
A firefighter checks his GPS device as fire consumes land deforested by cattle farmers near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) (Andre Penner/AP)

How is suburban Maryland like Brazil? In both areas, forest destruction has been justified as a cost of preserving a lifestyle and supporting business interests that cater to that lifestyle.

We tend to think of deforestation happening in tropical countries. Certainly, the scope of destruction is greatest in those places. But ecologically speaking, when a developer bulldozes a woodland lot to build a subdivision, leaving only shade trees and fringe forest, the effect is nearly as harmful as a clear cut in the Amazon. Forests are ecosystems. Roots, soil, microbes, detritus on the forest floor, everything contributes to the rich life of the whole. A leafy suburb is nothing like a forest.

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I recently had the opportunity to visit Iguacu National Park in southwest Brazil, the site of the world’s largest waterfall but also a protected pocket of dense subtropical forest where jaguar and puma still prowl. I marveled at the forest overhead — giant Palo Rosa and palm trees draped with orchids, pinto, ceibo and other hanging plants; and teeming with toucans, parrots, and giant colorful butterflies.

The park is a vestige of the Atlantic Forest, which once stretched 360,000 square miles along coastal and inland Brazil. These forests were second only to the Amazon rainforest for biological diversity in Brazil. But 93% of them have been cut down.

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I was depressed as I drove eastward from Iguacu to the coastal city of Florianopolis. Farm fields largely have replaced the forests. Hour after hour I traveled through this ecological apocalypse. Soybeans grow in knee-high uniformly over vast tracts where monkeys once romped in 10-story forest canopies. The soybeans feed chickens and cattle. Brazilians enjoy their meat.

I have been equally depressed driving through Harford County. My job takes me to Abington, Bel Air, Forest Hill and northward, an area unfamiliar to me until now. Clearly, much of it once was covered with a thick blanket of woods. Now, it is a land of sprawling subdivisions — Laurel Ridge, Woodland Run, White Oak, Whispering Woods, etc. — which take their names from that which they have destroyed. And still, the bulldozers raze the remaining forests.

I’ve seen the same in other counties: Anne Arundel, St. Mary’s, Charles, Prince George’s and more. Marylanders like their lawns.

Over decades we’ve become accustomed to killing forests, and each generation accepts a less verdant and vibrant world because it knows no different. It’s harder to get alarmed when your natural home is destroyed in slow motion.

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The Maryland General Assembly should take a small step to help. It can finally update the state Forest Conservation Act (FCA). This law, enacted in 1991, was a laudable effort to minimize forest destruction by developers. But builders still cut down perhaps 70,000 acres between 1992 and 2017, according to a graphic summary at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website.

The DNR summary contends about twice that amount of forest was “retained” or not cleared. Historically, counties often have failed to report FCA data to the state, so these abstract summaries are unreliable. Also, even if a builder cuts only half the trees on a wooded lot, the contiguous forest is destroyed, its ecosystem severely diminished.

Counties such as Anne Arundel, Frederick and Howard have bravely stepped forward to update their administration of the FCA law and to slow forest destruction by builders further. The legislature, however, has refused to take similar steps for the entire state.

Ever since the so-called rain tax debacle of 2013, and Larry Hogan’s exploitation of it to get elected governor, lawmakers have become wary of environmental legislation. Democratic leaders have dragged their feet for years to update the FCA, placating developers who claim backyard tree plantings have compensated for forest loss or that tightening forest protections would cause housing shortages. It’s uncertain if the legislature will do anything meaningful this year. Ostensibly, key lawmakers are waiting for more data, paralyzed by parsing.

This is the same type of shortsighted leadership that has doomed forests around the globe, to our peril. We’ve destroyed about half the world’s forests, the lungs of the earth. We justify this incremental suicide in order to preserve a lifestyle — for however long it will last.

Tom Zolper (tzolper@gmail.com) is a former senior writer for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Catholic Relief Services. He lives in Baltimore.

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