A lone tree can remove an average of 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air each year, but a forest of trees has a far greater impact on the air we breathe, water that we drink and temperature that we feel. Maryland’s forests are responsible for removing thousands of metric tons of pollutants from our air and water supply each year — an estimated ecosystem value of tens of billions of dollars — all while providing a space for exploration, education and enjoyment.
Currently, the state of Maryland touts a goal to maintain its level of “40 percent of the state covered in tree canopy.” The operative word here is “canopy.” The Forest Conservation Act’s “No Net Loss” bill would change this wording to “40 percent of the state covered in forest land.” As an English-major-turned-urban-forester in Baltimore, I can see how people get lost in these semantics, but I can assure that this change is essential to the health of our state and its residents.
Tree canopy typically reflects the individual trees that form a connected buffer to shade and cool our streets during increasingly hot summer months. It is essential in its own right: at the same time of day during a heat wave this past summer, some neighborhoods in Baltimore faced temperatures that were 16 degrees hotter than other neighborhoods. This incredible public health disparity, called the urban heat island, is largely dependent on the tree canopy that protects residents from the dangers of extreme heat.
Forested land encompasses more than just the tree canopy. It reflects a full ecological system that significantly filters and cleans our air, supports a diverse wildlife habitat, prevents the extremity of devastating floods (like the “thousand year floods” that occurred twice in two years in Ellicott City), and reduces runoff of pollution into our waterways. Forests are environmental powerhouses.
Without trees, our quality of life diminishes greatly. And without the forests that contain them, our state suffers from the current and impending costs of climate change on our health, agriculture and economic infrastructure. "No net loss" means far more than maintaining 40 percent forested land. It also means no net loss of priceless services our forests provide.
Maryland can define its role in protecting our status of 40 percent forested land and be a nationwide example of what it means to truly prioritize the land that serves us so readily.
Sheila McMenamin, Baltimore
The writer is director of programs for the Baltimore Tree Trust.