Forests

May the Forest Be With Us!

Bog Cariline County TWITTER (2).jpg

This legislative session, we saw huge wins in Maryland for the environment.  We banned Styrofoam take out containers, paved a path for Maryland to produce 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, and protected oyster sanctuaries. But while these grabbed headlines, the two bills I am the most proud of are two small forest bills that you might not have even heard of. One provides for a study of forest loss in Maryland and the other fixes a loophole in Maryland’s Forest Conservation Act.  Why are these so important to me? They hit close to home.

Seeing the forest for the trees

I always loved the view from my bedroom – just over the property line a tiny forest of glittering green leaves and bouncing squirrels saved me from peering into the rowhomes behind mine. I was looking forward to teaching my new son the names of the birds flitting among the branches as my dad taught me. I’ll always remember the moments trimming back the invasive English ivy lapping up the sides of the trees with my dad as we talked about being a good man, the future, and nothing at all. In a few short years I could start to teach my son about this little patch of nature that gives us so much- air to breathe, water to drink, shade in the summer and protection from floods. But one spring day last year, ironically while I was researching forest policy for work, I heard the buzz of a chainsaw and saw my favorite blue jay fly frantically from her nest as one tree top after another disappeared from my window view. Within minutes, I could see through the last few trees to realize just how close the neighbors live to me.

I went out and asked the tree crew why they were taking down my little forest. They said someone at the HOA said it looked overgrown. The HOA later said that they did not think the trees needed to be removed, but by then it was too late. It might just be coincidence, but soon after the trees which drank so much water came down, my basement started having new flooding and mold issues. Meanwhile, two blocks away where I used to jog, dozens of acres of forests were being plowed down for a new development. Soon after the local forest was paved over, our neighborhood was plagued with rats, potentially fleeing from the felled forests with nowhere else to go. More forests were coming down on the surrounding roads to make room for new gas stations. As the developments rose, so did the congestion, and now I wait in 45 minutes of traffic on my way home on a once beautiful country road. My little wooded corner of Maryland is changing fast, and I was learning that my story in my town of Crofton was not unique.

When we see forests come down in our neighborhoods, many of us think the same thing- Did they have to take down this forest? Were the developers trying to protect as much of the forest as they could?  Are trees at least being replanted somewhere else? At Maryland LCV, I often get voters calling us to ask these questions. Unfortunately, when investigating each incident, I usually hit one wall after another. The more I investigate deforestation in Maryland, the more frustrating and complicated it seems.

The Forest Conservation Act falls short

For years, Maryland has had a landmark Forest Conservation Act and a ‘no net loss of forest’ goal on the books.  Under the Forest Conservation Act, developers are supposed to have a forest conservation plan and at least protect or replant an acre for every four they chop down where possible.  If they cannot replant or retain forests themselves, they have to pay their county government a ‘fee-in-lieu’ to replant or protect forests elsewhere. The ‘no net loss’ goal is supposed to keep the level of forested land in Maryland at 40 percent across the whole state. However, there are a lot of loopholes and problems with how the laws are working. 

The Forest Conservation Act is not functioning as it should. According to a study by the University of Maryland, our oldest, most contiguous, and highest quality forests are the least protected by the Forest Conservation Act. I talked to several county foresters and planners who also are frustrated with the current program. For example, developers must only maintain the forest for a few short years, then there is often nothing stopping vines or other invaders from choking out the forest. There is also almost no transparency required in the system. Some counties proactively have more stringent local ordinances, but in many counties, it is nearly impossible to see the forest conservation plan that developers are supposed to have or even to learn how the counties are using these forest funds they have been collecting. In some counties, literally millions of dollars have piled up in funds from developers preferring to pay fee-in-lieu rather than try to build around trees. In some cases, there are hardly any real county plans to use the money to replant or protect forests at all. In some cases, developers have been able to pay far less than what it costs to plant or protect a forest in that county. There was even a scandal where my previous county executive allegedly gave a huge amount of money meant to protect hundreds or thousands of acres to a personal friend for a small plot of land called Turtle Run.

Hogan’s ‘no net loss’ loophole

The Hogan administration has also exploited a loophole in the ‘no net loss’ of forest law to count every single area with a tree as a forest- even a single tree in a box in the middle of a parking lot could be counted as a forest.  By counting tree canopy including every street tree as a forest, suddenly Maryland is 10% above its 40% forest cover goal and the administration said there is no problem and nothing to worry about. For years, the Hogan administration has claimed that we don’t have enough data to prove we are losing forests and there is no way of knowing where the problem is coming from or the best way to solve it. 

Real forest loss

The truth is Maryland is constantly losing forests. According to the best available computer models at the Chesapeake Bay Program, we are losing on average a dozen acres of forests a day in Maryland and could lose 34,000 or more more by 2025. The individual county Forest Conservation Act annual reports only capture a small fraction of this loss, but even these incomplete plans show that developers removed a net of 17,168 acres from 2008 to 2016 without replanting them. 

wicomico tributary TWITTER.jpg

Fighting for the Forests

I was angry, and I was not alone. In fact, independent polling this year shows support among Maryland’s voters for saving forests and protecting trees.  84% of Marylander’s think it is important to save Maryland’s forests even if a development project must move or cost more.  Marylander’s have had enough.

More and more nonprofits around Maryland were becoming concerned about this forest loss. By partnering with Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and Choose Clean Water Coalition, we organized dozens of organizations and over 100 grassroots organizers meeting regularly to strategize and share knowledge. It was time to change some laws. This legislative session, Elaine Lutz at CBF tirelessly led advocacy efforts every day in the halls of Annapolis, met with legislators and kept everyone up to date on the constant shifts and maneuvering through the State House. We had thousands of people sign petitions, call and email their elected officials, and many even came to Annapolis to talk to their legislators face to face. In fact, last year several officials noted they got more calls about forest conservation than any other issue. Not just traditional environmental organizations like Audubon Naturalist Society and Arundel Rivers Federation were fired up, but the faith community was incredibly active and effective as well thanks to the expert leadership of Jodi Rose at Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. Different organizations and activists each had a key role to play. Choose Clean Water Coalition was also very useful in providing media and communications assistance throughout the process.  I was honored to be able to help coordinate the efforts and add a bit of my own flair- as a true geek and Star Wars fan, I decided to end every meeting, call and email with a simple uplifting message: May the Forest be With Us!

The Developers Strike Back

There was enormous pressure on legislators from the big money developer lobby to stop substantive forest legislation. This lobby stops forest legislation year after year, and this year killed the bill to fix the ‘no net loss’ loophole. These lobbyists confused elected officials with falsehoods and misconstrued data, and they reminded legislators just how much money this lobby puts into their campaigns. 

Our Work Pays Off!

Despite the big money, we emerged victorious last month in two of our three forest bills. HB272/SB234 finally fixes the fee-in-lieu system. Now a county can only accept the money from a developer if the county has a plan for how to use it. The counties will have to make their deals much more transparent and publish a public plan every year. This bill was passed with near unanimous vote and supported by the Maryland Association of Counties. Finally, we should start seeing real forests being replanted and protected as the Forest Conservation Act should have been doing all along.

The second bill, HB735/SB729, commissions a study to finally settle the debate on forests. The nonpartisan Hughes Center for Agroecology will look at how much forest we are really losing, determine the root causes of the losses, and explore ways we can fix the problem. The center will clear the issue of street trees vs. forests and better assess where we want to focus development vs. where we want to protect forests. Most importantly, elected officials who get huge donations from the developer lobby will not be able to hide behind their supposed confusion of the facts around forest loss.

These two bills are not the end but rather the beginning. The coalition we built can now move towards more and better forest policies in years to come- to better create local ordinances in key counties and major state level forest reform as early as 2020. We will be more thoughtful as we decide which forests to remove as we protect our best forests and plan for smarter development. These bills are about to go into effect, and someday soon I hope fewer people will wonder why a forest needlessly came down.  Fewer trees will be chopped down and fewer forests will be lost.

May the Forest Be With Us!

Ben Alexandro, Maryland League of Conservation Voters  

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.  

Distributed by Bay Journal News Service, a non-profit news organization that distributes original content to news outlets in the mid-Atlantic. It is free to use.