Forests

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.

Citizen Voices Protect George Washington National Forest

Living next door to the 1.1-million acre George Washington National Forest, along the mountainous Virginia/West Virginia border, has both pros and cons. Pros are clean air and water, many more tree neighbors than people, and the right of every citizen to tell the government how to manage this beautiful public forest. Cons are tourists, forest fires and the right of every corporation to tell the government how to manage this bountiful public forest.

For the last three years, the management plan for the forest has been delayed as corporate and citizen voices made a discordant buzz. Yet, the Forest Service has managed to make something harmonious out of the final plan that was released on November 18, 2014. Over those last three of my 30 years here, I’ve watched our maternity roost of little brown bats dwindle from dozens to zero and most of the hemlock trees die. Even that embodiment of childhood delight in discovery, the box turtle, has almost disappeared.

This forest is home to thousands of species of plants and animals that need wild forests to survive. It is the largest intact forest in the East and a globally ranked biodiversity hot spot, yet even here, about 200 species are rare or declining because of human impacts. 

If life is any measure of stewardship, then the last thing the George Washington National Forest needs is habitat destruction through gas or oil drilling.

What has proliferated in the last three years are geological maps of the Marcellus Shale gas formation and drilling leases on thousands of privately owned acres around me. Most of the national forest lies atop the Marcellus shale.

Also during the last three years I took a frack-finding trip to a West Virginia Host Farm (www.wvhostfarms.org) in Doddridge County. The intensely industrial processes of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas (fracking) have deforested and polluted thousands of acres there. Shredded roads, fatal accidents, toxic spills, toxic fumes and residents with recently developed respiratory diseases were just part of all we learned. The drilling rig I fell asleep watching from the host farm window exploded two months later, killing two workers. 

Back home, my human neighbors who at first thought fracking was like the hole-in-the-ground gas wells of the past, also spent the last three years educating themselves. The Texas gas company that leased land here is now letting its leases expire, citing a disappointing test well nearby, plus “local resistance.”

Anti-fracking sentiment was further expressed in more than 90 percent of 53,000 comments to the draft George Washington National Forest management plan issued by the Forest Service three years ago.

And it was those voices that prevailed. “The Forest Service listened to local concerns and made most of the forest unavailable for future gas and oil leasing in the new plan,” said Sarah Francisco of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Only where minerals rights are not owned by the government, on scattered lands that comprise well under 20 percent of the GWNF, could any fracking take place. The public is much better served by protecting these natural systems that we all depend on for so many essential resources.”

National forests are a modern version of the commons, the most ancient, universal form of land tenure, and one that was traditional in these Appalachian Mountains. As a commons, the national forest benefits everyone, even people who have never heard of it. Millions of people annually gain clean water and air; erosion and flood control; carbon sequestration; timber and non-timber products; and opportunities for recreation, study and solitude available nowhere else in the East. 

While the new plan sets higher targets for logging, prescribed burning, and biomass harvests than in the original draft, it also recommends more new and expanded Wilderness Areas and a large National Scenic Area. If Congress acts on the recommendations, these areas will be permanently protected from most forms of extractive use. This seems a reasonable balance that reflects the diverse demands of many diverse stakeholders.  

It was courageous of the U.S. Forest Service to stop oil and gas leasing despite industry pressure, and I’m grateful. For three years, I have watched as my tree neighbors grew the three thin dendritic rings that will be hardly noticeable in the dense wood of an oak that can reach 600 years. Those trees, and all the lives they harbor, have a good chance of surviving under the new plan. And maybe the U.S. Forest Service’s rejection of industrialized energy in the George Washington National Forest will help against the next big threat: the massively destructive Atlantic Coast (fracked gas) Pipeline planned by Dominion Resources across the most ecologically sensitive parts of the forest. Life in the forest remains at risk.  

Chris Bolgiano is the author or editor of six books and innumerable articles about forestry, ecotravel and rural life. Visit www.chrisbolgiano.com.  

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