State of the Chesapeake Forests: Public perception often fails to look at importance of forests beyond trees
Report finds much of the region's woodlands at risk and urges public, policy-makers to take action to protect them
An early Pennsylvania settler was less than impressed with the massive woodlands he found surrounding his new home. The colony, he wrote, was “not a land of prospects. There is too much wood.” If one wandered to the top of a hill for a view “it generally is nothing but an undulating surface of impenetrable forest.”
At the time, an estimated 95 percent of the Chesapeake Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed was forested, filled with massive trees which stood, on average, 40 percent taller than those that fill today’s woodlands.
But early settlers and visitors often viewed the thick woods as a nuisance. A British Army surgeon during the Revolutionary War found little he liked when he traveled into the wilderness. “What I saw every day and in the greatest numbers was trees,” he wrote. Western Pennsylvania, he observed, was “a very monotonous forest.”
Nowadays, only about 58 percent of the watershed is forested, but a new report says that many people fail to see much more use for those lands than their predecessors centuries ago.
“They’re often overlooked and undervalued,” said Sally Claggett, U.S. Forest Service Liaison to the Bay Program, who calls forests “the invisible land use… You often don’t realize they’re there until they’re gone. You think they will always be there, and then one day it’s housing.”
That’s happening at a rapid rate, according to a new, 120-page report, the “State of the Chesapeake Forests,” produced by The Conservation Fund and the U.S. Forest Service. The first-ever, comprehensive analysis of the Chesapeake region’s forests finds those lands are “at risk” and calls on the public—and policy-makers—to take action to protect the region’s woodlands.
Far from being without value, the report says the remaining Bay region forests are critical for a timber and wood products industry that is worth $22 billion a year. Forests also provide at least an additional $24 billion in “ecological services”—for free. Those include such things as removing pollutants from the air, protecting drinking water supplies, removing nutrients and providing habitat for critical species, such as pollinating insects. A single acre of trees in Washington, D.C., can reduce stormwater construction costs by $25,000.
The report raises concern that those benefits will diminish not only because of ongoing forest loss—more than 100 acres a day in the watershed—but also because of a host of other threats that are compromising the ecological and economic value of the region’s woodlands. Those include not only bulldozers from developers, but also tree-killing exotic species such as the hemlock wooly adelgid and the gypsy moth; acid rain that degrades forest soils; and a large, hungry deer population that literally nips new forests in the bud as they browse woodlands.
In response, the Chesapeake Executive Council approved a directive at its Sept. 22 meeting promising to establish a forest conservation goal at its 2007 meeting that will focus on protecting forests along streams, large forest tracts and forests that protect drinking water supplies.
It is the first time the Executive Council—the top policy-making body for the Bay cleanup efforts—called for protecting forests as a whole. Past initiatives had been narrowly aimed at forested stream buffers, which help to filter nutrient-laden runoff.
“We are shifting from just forest buffers to looking at overall forest cover,” Claggett said.
What’s bad for the forests is also bad for the Bay. As a rule of thumb, forests are—by far—the stingiest land use when it comes to releasing nutrients and sediment. Although forests are the largest land use in the watershed, they contribute only 15 percent of the nitrogen (41 million pounds) and 2 percent of the phosphorus (400,000 pounds) reaching the Chesapeake. Forests are such an effective nutrient sponge that the Bay Program estimates that if the entire watershed were forested, only 60 million pounds of nitrogen would reach the Bay.
Once they reach the Chesapeake, those nutrients spur the growth of algae blooms, which block sunlight for underwater grass beds and remove critical oxygen from the water. States in the region have developed multibillion- dollar cleanup plans aimed at curbing nutrient runoff from farms, cities, suburbs and other lands to slash the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay from 275 million to 175 million pounds a year, and phosphorus from 19.3 million to 12.9 million pounds—reductions aimed at restoring Chesapeake water quality.
Simply maintaining and promoting forests can do much of the job cheaply, the report noted. “Even as we spend billions of dollars annually on Best Management Practices to control polluted runoff, nothing yet devised works like an intact forest,” the report said.
As forests are lost or degraded, the report said, more nutrients will find their way into the Bay, making it more difficult to attain cleanup goals.
“Every 1 percent of forest area that is lost is about another million pounds of nitrogen per year going into the Bay,” Richard Birdsey of the U.S. Forest Service said in a recent briefing to the Chesapeake Bay Commission on the report. “If you lose 250,000 acres of forest land to land use change, that’s about another million pounds of nitrogen, and that could happen very quickly.”
In fact, three times that much—750,000 acres—was lost between 1982 and 1997, according to the report, an area about 20 times the size of Washington, D.C.
That trend is expected to continue. Nine of the 100 fastest growing counties in the United States are located in the Bay watershed, and growth is expected to continue to sprawl into forests as the watershed’s population expands from more than 16 million people today, to 19 million in 2030. The report said current growth patterns indicate that at least 36 percent of the remaining forests are vulnerable to development.
Although development is the single largest worry, the region’s woodlands face a host of other threats that will likely take a toll on their ecological and economic value—as well as their benefits for the Bay, according to the report.
To understand the threat, it’s important to realize that healthy forests are more than just trees. They are complex systems made up with a mix of tree types of different ages and sizes, with a wide variety of plants growing on the ground—and a mix of fungi and bacteria in the soils. “Healthy forests contain multiple layers of vegetation—each providing important functions,” the report said. “It is this complexity of interdependent parts and diversity of structure that makes forest land capable of providing clean water and diverse habitats.”
The top layer, or canopy, intercepts and slows precipitation, removes carbon and other pollutants, releases oxygen and moderates climate by releasing water into the air and providing shade. The understory filters and traps pollutants from the forest floor and soil, and moderates flooding. The forest floor is a rich organic layer that stores nutrients and water, held in place by a network of roots that prevents erosion.
Vast forests not only absorb nutrients, but water as well. Instead of flowing off the land and into streams, most of the rain that falls on forest lands soaks into the ground and slowly makes its way into waterways through the groundwater—a forest stores roughly six times as much water as a grass lawn or field. Forested streams, as a result, have a more constant flow of water year-round than streams in other land uses. That not only provides better habitat for aquatic species, but protects against floods.
Those complex systems are increasingly fragmented by development, roads, utility lines and other human activities, which create pathways for future development, invasive species and disease. Far from being an “undulating surface of impenetrable forest,” most woodland patches in the Bay watershed are less than 1,000 acres, or two square miles. Fragmented forests reduce the habitat value for a wide variety of species, from birds seeking shelter from predators to brook trout which rely on forests to maintain stream flows and temperature—brook trout disappear when just 2 percent of a watershed is developed.
Today’s fragmented landscape is ideal for deer, though, especially as hunting is often restricted in many developing areas. That results in high deer populations that overbrowse the forest, eliminating forest regeneration, reducing vegetation and influencing forest composition by selective browsing. As few as 10 deer per square mile can reduce forest regeneration.
Disturbed and fragmented landscapes are easily overrun by invasive, often exotic, plants that outcompete native species. The invaders lower the quality of food sources and shelter for wildlife. They are especially problematic for efforts trying to re-establish forests after harvest or other disturbances.
Pests and diseases are also a growing concern. A century ago, chestnut blight swept across the region, eliminating American chestnut, which was the most abundant species in many areas and had huge economical value as well as being ecologically important because its nuts were more nutritious than those of oaks, which took their place. Other exotics have damaged remaining forests, such as Dutch elm disease, beech bark disease, and gypsy moth. Hemlock—an important species along stream in many mountain areas—is in sharp decline because of the arrival of the deadly hemlock woolly adelgid. Such impacts ripple through the ecosystem: The loss of streamside hemlocks can increase nitrogen runoff, and is related to the loss of brook trout habitat. And more pests are on the way: the emerald ash borer, sudden oak death and the Asian long-horned beetle.
Fire, often considered an enemy of forests, is actually important for many species, including oak. The elimination of periodic wildfires from forests have promoted the growth of species that are vulnerable to fire, such as red maple and tulip poplar, while reducing the abundance of fire-resistant species such as oak. In fact, the lack of fire, combined with other factors such as deer browsing, is contributing to the replacement of the region’s oaks—which are among the most ecologically and economically important species in today’s Bay forests—with less valuable species, such as red maple, according to the report.
Ongoing exposure to acid rain has acidified forest soils in much of the watershed, stunting plant growth, heightening the susceptibility of trees and other plants to insect and other stresses, and increasing the export of pollutants from forests to streams.
Air pollution is a major concern for the forest and the Bay. Nitrogen deposition—a component of acid rain and a large source of nutrients to the Bay—is mostly absorbed when it lands on forested land. But as forests become saturated with nitrogen, their ability to soak up that air pollution will decline. Today, forests retain about 85 percent of the nitrogen they receive. If nitrogen deposition rates remain at current levels, forests will only retain 47 percent of the nitrogen landing on them by midcentury, the report said.
“This change would represent a four-fold increase in nitrogen exported to streams from forests,” the report said. “This is particularly troubling for the Bay. When multiplied by the large acreage of forest land in the Bay watershed, even small losses in a forest’s ability to retain nitrogen could pose serious challenges to meeting and maintaining nutrient reduction goals—making the connection between air pollution and water quality very real. This is especially true in the high elevation streams of Pennsylvania and New York.”
Some of the problems facing forests could be offset by improved forest management aimed at maintaining long-term ecological and economic services, according to the report. That, in large part, has been thwarted by increased “parcelization” of forest ownership—a trend toward more and more people owning smaller and smaller forest tracts.
In fact, 64 percent of the forests in the watershed are owned by 900,000 different people or families, according to the report. Only about 20 percent of those small forest tract owners have any type of management plan for their land, and only a third have ever sought professional advice.
Another concern is that much of the watershed’s forest land is expected to be under new management. About 80 percent of the region’s forests are privately owned, and the report predicts that a “significant portion” of that land will go up for sale—and potentially switch to other uses—within the next five years.
The average age of small “family forest owners” is 55, and large numbers may soon be selling their land, or transferring it to their heirs—many of whom have little connection to the land and many have little interest in maintaining or managing forest tracts. Many of those new forest owners may be tempted to sell for development.
It’s not just small tracts that are at risk. The sale of large commercial forest holdings is also on the rise, both regionally and across the nation. While some sales are made to public interest groups or other forest products companies, most large transactions are to investment organizations such as pension funds, insurance companies and banks.
“The main goal of these companies is to secure the highest rate of return for their investors—making them less likely to use capital for sustainable forest management,” the report said. “If the selling spree of commercial forest land continues, many fear that these areas could be cut into much smaller parcels in which condominiums and summer homes would replace trees.”
The report expresses concern that the continuing decline in overall forests, and increased fragmentation of what remains, will reduce the viability of the timber industry. As the value of the land for timber production declines relative to other uses, the impetus to sell it for development increases.
A recent Virginia study found that 20 percent of all forest land in the state is removed from harvest potential because the surrounding area is too densely populated. When the population reaches 150 people per square mile, the likelihood of timber harvests is zero. At 70 people per square mile, the likelihood is 50 percent.
That not only hurts the local forest products industry, but exports the demand for wood and wood products to other regions or countries where forest harvesting is not subject to the same level of environmental regulation. Right now, the report said, the average Bay watershed resident annually uses forest products equivalent to 2 acres of woodlands per year. In fact, watershed residents rely on 9 million acres of non-Chesapeake forests to meet their demand for forest products.
“Meeting more demands with local production would allow Chesapeake forest owners to maintain their land through new sources of income and enhance the sustainability of forests and the environment, both in the watershed and around the globe,” the report said.
While forest land is valuable for the Bay, forest land owners—whether small or large—have relatively few incentives to maintain their land as forests, despite the variety of benefits the public gets from those lands.
Farmers in the Chesapeake states received more than $130 million in financial incentives to support conservation practices in 2004, but less than 10 percent of that amount was available for forest conservation—and almost all of that was for technical support, not financial incentives, the report said.
“We need to find a way to compensate private landowners for their benefits to the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said Eric Sprague, of The Conservation Fund, who was the editor of the report. “Private forests do the public good, but there is currently no system set up to recognize the benefit.”
In some cases, officials note, existing farm programs can work against forests. The Bay states have some of the most extensive farmland protection programs in the nation—but those programs sometimes have the effect of pushing development off preserved farms and into forests.
“Most of the forest lands in the Bay region are in private ownership and less recognized as a working landscape than agriculture,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which has been active in forestry issues in the past. “The farmer is out tilling the land each year and is producing a crop, whereas with forests, people forget that they are actually timberland.”
To protect what’s left, the report proposes a number of strategies, from setting overall conservation goals to creating programs that pay owners for forest services, such as soaking up carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. It calls for increasing tree coverage in cities to reduce air pollution and help control runoff, while stepping up efforts to control dangerous pests which could harm forests.
Similar recommendations have been made in past reports, but officials hope that the endorsement by the Executive Council will put more push behind the strategies. “Hopefully, this is the Bay region realizing that the time for recognition of the forests has come,” Swanson said.
To get things started, The Conservation Fund and the Forest Service are hosting a forum this fall with regional forestry officials, policy-makers and other groups to begin working on ways to implement the strategies.
The report said it is likely that the amount of forests in the future will decline and become more fragmented, but with the right planning, many important forest services can be maintained.
Forests, in fact, have gone through dramatic shifts in the past. After extreme clear-cutting in the late 1800s, just 40 percent of the watershed was left forested, mostly by small, second-growth trees. That devastation helped to give birth to the modern conservation movement, the report noted. Forests, at least until the early 1970s, bounced back—albeit the species makeup has shifted dramatically, and there is little age variation among the trees, as the vast majority are about 100 years old.
“Forests are pretty resilient,” Claggett said. “They have been with us all this time, and they have already been through some pretty hard times. There are issues, but there are solutions. People just need to be aware of them. If we can just value them, we will be able to maintain them on the landscape.”
The report is available at www.chesapeakebay.net/stateoftheforests.htm
Benefits of Forests in the Bay Region
- Protect Water Quality: Forests act as “sponges” by capturing rainfall, reducing runoff, maintaining the flow of streams, filtering nutrients and sediment, and stabilizing soils. Riparian forests that buffer streams significantly reduce the amount of excess nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) that enter the water, sometimes by as much as 30–90 percent. Mature trees also provide root systems that hold soils in place, helping to stabilize stream banks and reduce erosion.
- Offer Habitat for Fish and Wildlife: Healthy forests provide food, shelter, nesting sites and safe migration paths for the Chesapeake Bay’s aquatic and land animals. Streamside forests shade the water beneath their canopies, maintaining cooler water temperatures in summer, an important factor for spawning fish. Decaying leaves and wood are essential links in the Bay’s food chain.
- Improve Air Quality: Forests absorb or trap nitrogen, particulates and other pollutants in the atmosphere that are released by cars, factories, farming and construction. In cities, tree canopies reduce summer temperatures and the generation of harmful pollutants like ozone.
- Improve Quality of Life and Encourage Recreation: Forests offer places where people can reflect and experience natural beauty and solitude.
- Forests also foster active outdoor recreation such as fishing, hiking, camping and cross-country skiing. Tourism and recreation contribute to the region’s economy.
- Enhance the Economy: Forests provide billions of dollars a year to the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s economy in the form of such services as clean air and water, wood and paper, jobs and income, higher property values, and improved physical and mental health, in addition to myriad recreational opportunities.
— “The State of the Chesapeake Forests”
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