The Forest Conservation Act of Maryland

Forests do not often get the credit they deserve when it comes to restoring the Chesapeake Bay, but here at the Choose Clean Water Coalition we want to put a spotlight on this important part of the ecosystem. Forests work like giant sponges, absorbing rain water and pulling it into the soil. This absorption of water keeps the soil moist and able to grow vegetation, which creates the forests that provide food, shelter, nesting sites, and safe migration paths for critters in the water and on land.  Forest buffers also help to stabilize stream banks and improve water quality. Their large root systems keep the soil in place, keeping sediment from eroding into water ways and act as large filters to clean rainwater runoff. This is a hugely important part of keeping our Bay clean from stormwater and agriculture pollution. Forests are also economically valuable, as they supply wood and paper products, generate jobs and income, provide the state with a recreational income from parks, and increasing property value. 

When settlers arrived in the Chesapeake Bay region, their impression of the land was that there was “too much wood” and said the view of the untapped America was “an undulating surface of impenetrable forest”. These ancient trees were about 40 percent taller than the young new trees that grow here now. Between 1982 and 1997, the Bay watershed lost more than 750,000 acres of forestland. Today, there are about 24 million acres of forest and the watershed is losing about 70 acres each day. So how do we continue to benefit from the economic value of our forests without losing everything? Sustainable forestry is a broad term for management techniques that respect the environmental, social, and economic values of the forest – while still allowing for harvesting.

 Photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

The Bay jurisdictions have worked to mitigate this issue. In 1991, the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of Maryland was passed to protect our forest habitats from over-foresting. The act is primarily implemented on a local level, through the Department of Natural Resources. The FCA covers private and public forested areas 40,000 square feet or larger – with a few exceptions including highway construction. Thanks to the FCA, before construction is started applicants must submit a Forest Stand Delineation and Forest Conservation Plan. These are used to determine the best areas for construction, review information on the soil and trees present at the site, as well as a schedule, a reforestation plan, and a plan demonstrating minimal ecological disturbance. These mitigation requirements vary by plot size and essentially require replanting of trees to compensate for what is lost.

 Photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Maryland has not altered its FCA since 2013, and now it is up for review this coming legislative session. About half of the Bay watershed is in Maryland, so, it is extremely vital that the decisions made in the 2018 Conservation Act positively impact the watershed. As for changes to the current FCA, some conservationists believe that the replacement ratio for trees should be 1:1 throughout all of Maryland, and done directly by those building on the land. Previously, builders have been able to pay a fee to the county instead of replanting, but it is difficult to track how those fees are used. The consensus from environmentalists is that without stricter rules on how replanting is done, "no net loss" is not truly fulfilled. It is imperative that we remember why the Forest Conservation Act was implemented to begin with – and to carefully weigh the benefits and risk of modern construction on our beloved wilderness.

 Mary Katherine Sullivan is an intern with the Clean Water Coalition.