Monday, February 20, 2017

Maryland's forests are threatened - again!

"Forests have four major roles in climate change: they currently contribute about one-sixth of global carbon emissions when cleared, overused or degraded; they react sensitively to a changing climate; when managed sustainably, they produce wood-fuels as a benign alternative to fossil fuels; and finally, they have the potential to absorb about one-tenth of global carbon emissions projected for the first half of this century into their biomass, soils and products and store them - in principle in perpetuity." (Forestry and Climate Change) 
Landscapes in the American Northeast: Forests and Meadows
(photo: Philipsen)
"Europeans and their descendants modified forests for their benefit.[..] Paramount was the near-universal perspective that forests were either a threat that hid enemies, an obstacle to settlement, a resource to be converted to profit or all the above.
By 1850, the lowland forests of the Atlantic seaboard, New England and much of the Midwest had largely been cleared. By 1920, more than two-thirds of American forests had been leveled at least once, including the vast majority of eastern forests. Timber companies simply harvested the forest and moved on, from the Great Lakes to the South and across the West, leaving behind stumps, fire prone slash and dead or dying lumber towns.[...] Although deforestation continued apace, the overall decline in forest cover finally plateaued around 1920 [...] 
Now, in the 48 contiguous states, logging mainly takes place on lands that have been previously harvested, and agricultural land use has generally stabilized. Although a relatively small fraction of forest is currently being lost to urbanization, the amount is increasing, and none of it will be returned to forest anytime soon."  (American Forests)
Destruction of forest for development in Baltimore County (Photo: Phikipsen)
"We owe it to the next generation of Marylanders to continue to find innovative and cost effective ways to protect Maryland's environment" (Governor Hogan, 2017)

One would think that with an environmental agenda the protection of forests and mature trees would be a natural place to begin and the goal of "No net loss of forest" a common goal among all Marylanders. Especially if one considers the cumulative beneficial effects forests have as:
  • carbon sinks that absorb the harmful carbon dioxide before it can act as a greenhouse gas
  • stabilizers of soil absorbing moisture and preventing run off to wash soil away
  • water filters that take out pollutants such as nitrogen before it reaches waterways and the Bay
  • air coolers that lower temperatures through evaporation
  • dust filters that clean particles out of dirty air
  • economic benefit (Cecil County found that the County’s forests provide an economic benefit of approximately $12,000 per acre per year according to CBF).
  • recreational spaces that give people calm and spiritual reprieve 
House Bill 599, (Senate bill 365, sponsored by Senator Ron Young) is just doing that. But the Forest Conservation Act, which:
Destruction of Forest in Catonsville for the development of
the "Patapsco Preserve" (Photo: Philipsen)
  • Limits the exemption for energy generating facilities and utility lines that currently can clear forests with no replacement;
  • Requires an acre of reforestation for an acre of forest cleared for new, large-scale development; and
  • Provides additional flexibility for local governments to craft fee-in-lieu programs that reflect the forest lost to any particular project.
is by no means universally supported. For example, the Maryland Municipal League and MACO, the Association of Counties both oppose it. So did predictably, the realtors and developers (the Maryland Building Industry Association).
"Replanting acre for acre, there's not enough land in the state, really, to do that, we're not looking to cut down more trees than we have to. In many cases, development can improve the drainage and ecology of a site and actually create a better environment." Lori Graf, CEO of the Maryland Building Industry Association as reported by the SUN.
Homebuilders routinely use green space as the easiest path towards new development. They can't imagine a growing Maryland that isn't cutting down forests for homes and shopping centers, replicating a pattern that seems ingrained in the frontier mentality. As if the metropolitan landcsape wasn't marred by hundreds and thousands of acres of abandonment and decay of mostly failed commercial and industrial development. High time to be more frugal with our lands. No need to go into green spaces at all, and certainly not into forested ones.
Destruction of forest for development in Howard County (photo: Philipsen)

The argument that subdivisions create somehow a better environment than a forest is so ludicrous that one has to assign it to the fairyland of alternative facts that become ever more popular in Annapolis and Washington.

Anyone can see with their own eyes that forests are cut down for gas stations, McMansions and schools. Anyone can see the increased runoff resulting from development and the eroded streams that result from sudden runoff that forests can prevent. Ellicott City showed most dramatically the consequence of unfettered development in a watershed that had been historically largely forested.

An analysis of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation finds that more than 14,450 acres of Maryland's forests have disappeared to development in the past eight years, and that was a recession based low compared to the 7,000 acres of Maryland's tree canopy that vanished every year before the recession hit, according to the MD Department of Natural Resources. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that anything that causes annual net losses in forest cover is not sustainable, even before one accounts for the value of a mature forest that is lost compared to the skinny new trees that the reforestation act requires as a replacement.

Trees, and lots of them, the bigger the better, is one of the simplest way to combat climate change. Easier and by far more practical than carbon sequestration in the ground as discussed for coal power plants, simpler that wind-farms in the ocean and even simpler than solar panels on roof tops. Trees not cut do not only not release CO2 in the atmosphere, they absorb it and deliver clean oxygen instead.

If the folks that make money of cutting down mature forests can't even agree to a full replacement in terms of area (they can't replace size anyway), then any hope that we will ever save the planet from irreparable devastation from climate change will have to be buried. The industry quotes a cost of $302,000 per 100 acres, a minimal cost of only $1500 per house if one assume large half acre lots, less for higher densities. The benefits of saved forests are not only in the public interest, they actually accrue directly to the homes near forest through higher appreciation and value.

reforestation and restoration: Decades to grow (Photo EQR)
Interestingly, one of the most conservative jurisdictions in Maryland, has shown for decades how the matter can be handled responsibly: Carroll County requires developers to plant an acre of forest for each acre cleared during development. In the same eight years when the State lost 14,500 acres of forest Carroll has gained 64 acres of forestland according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. By contrast, according to CBF, Anne Arundel County allowed builders to clear an average of about 45 percent of all forests on their properties prior to construction, or 682 acres. The county required builders to replant only 61 acres in those years.

According to the SUN, Jonathan Bowman, Carroll County's forest conservation manager, said the mostly rural county set a high bar decades ago and didn't set up a fee system for developers but, instead, set up a forest bank where property owners can voluntarily reforest property, then sell the credits to developers who can't or won't replant on the one to one base the county requires.

16% of Marylanders place environmental protection at the top of the
challenges facing Maryland, 38% above average. (2015 poll)
Of course, some say that the state hasn't lost any forest-cover and base their assertion on some inconsistencies in how forest-cover is determined and calculated. This is a similar line of argument as the one that disputes man-made climate change, a distraction from what is needs to be done since the benefits of more forest cover are self evident.

The bill will be up for a hearing this Wednesday in Annapolis in the Committee for Environment and Transportation with
Delegate Kumar P. Barve as chair. 

Blue Water Baltimore, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Thousand Friends of Maryalnd, the Choose Clean Water Coalition, the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Maryland Forestry Association, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, and the South River Federation support the bill. Individual testimony can be sent to legislators or the supporting organizations.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Sponsor Senator Ronald Young e-mail: ronald.young@senate.state.md.us
Committee Chair Kumar Barve:e-mail: kumar.barve@house.state.md.us



Capital Gazette Guest Column about the Reforestation Act