“Columns are written by fools like me,” to paraphrase the words of Joyce Kilmer’s paean to trees.

I’ve been thinking a lot about trees these days, what with the drought we are enduring in the Chesapeake region. We have all worked together to meet our goals to plant trees all over the watershed for the benefits they bring to our rivers and streams and eventually, the Bay. But in some areas, we will need to go back and replace those newly planted sprouts that were unable to survive so many months without water.

At one time, the Chesapeake watershed was nearly all forests, a natural system that absorbed nutrients, protected streambanks and held the waters of storms and snowmelt to slowly release in drier months. A lot of that capacity was lost in the early years of settlement around the Bay. In fact, the low point in forest cover in the watershed occurred in the late 19th century, when the combination of extensive farming and logging left us with less than half the drainage area in trees. Sediment cores show the results of this clearance, with immense increases in sediments in rivers and the Bay.

There followed a period where the forests began to return, and abandoned farms and clear-cut hills became covered with trees again. This trend continued until the mid-1960s, when the advance of suburban development and highways overtook the natural return rates.

Today we are left with about 60 percent of the watershed in forests, still an impressive number, and more than any other land use. Of course, most of these lands are located in the upper parts of the major rivers in our watershed, especially the Potomac and the Susquehanna. Closer to the Bay, the losses have been greatest, and the remaining forests are the smallest. A recent study by American Forests calculates that between 1973 and 1997, tree cover in the Baltimore-Washington area declined from 51 percent to 37 percent of the land area.

The benefits of forest cover are generally well known with respect to stormwater retention, stream protection and habitat. But the real benefit to the Bay comes from the remarkable ability of trees to absorb and process nutrients, the major pollutant which is damaging the Chesapeake and its grasses, fish and shellfish. In fact, the 60 percent of our watershed covered by forests delivers only 17 percent of the nitrogen reaching the Bay, and an amazingly small 3 percent of the phosphorous. To me, this fact alone explains why we must work so hard to protect our existing forests, and to bring them back where we can, especially in buffers along streams.

You might ask why the retention rate isn’t as good for nitrogen. A lot has to do with the fact that these same forests in the upper Susquehanna and Potomac, along with those in the upper Delaware and Hudson drainage basins, share the highest rate of nitrogen deposition from the air in the United States, and the second highest on earth. So we have overloaded our forests with nitrogen air pollution, yet they still absorb it far better than any other land cover. American Forests estimates that the lost tree canopy in the Baltimore-Washington area would have removed 9.3 million pounds of pollutants annually, at a value of $24 million. The loss in terms of stormwater retention is estimated at $1.08 billion per year, based on estimates of the costs to engineer and build replacement capacity.

The other way to view forests is to understand the value they add to our economy as a renewable resource industry. The biggest surprise to me about timber production came when I learned the importance of our regional forests to national industry. If you are like I was, you have always believed that the large national forests and timber company lands in the western United States are where the bulk of production is located. Not so. It turns out that nearly three-fourths of both timberlands and wood production are in the eastern United States. And while you might think the eastern forest production is primarily in the pine forests in the South, nearly half is in the Northeast and Midwest.

The ownership of these eastern forests is also quite surprising. Almost three-quarters of the acreage is in non-industrial private hands. So the majority of the forest business involves private landowners contracting with professionals to carry out timbering operations. This requires willing landowners, relatively large landholdings and contiguous forests. All three of these trends in our region are in the wrong direction in terms of the long-term viability of the industry. More and more landowners are interested in preserving the forests around their homes in a natural state, and resist both modern management practices and offers to remove timber. More and more large landholdings are being split up and sold off to people who want a house “and a few acres.” And more and more large tracts are being cut up by highways, development and other fragmenting activities.

Despite these potential problem areas for the industry, it is amazing how important the forestry industry remains in our Bay states. Pennsylvania is the number one producer of hardwoods in the nation, and wood products is its fourth largest industry. It also claims the largest hardwood inventory in the nation; in fact, the Upper Susquehanna watershed is said to contain the largest stand of mature mixed hardwoods on earth.

In Virginia, forest products rank second only to poultry and eggs in crop value, and are more than double the value of tobacco. Seventy-seven percent of the timberland is owned by non-industrial private landowners. Forest products contribute nearly $10 billion annually to the commonwealth’s economy, and the industry accounts for more than a quarter of a million jobs.

Even in Maryland, with some of the most concentrated urban and agricultural regions in the watershed, the forest products industry ranks as the fifth largest manufacturing industry.

So we need to see our forests as important resource lands, not only for our region and its environmental welfare, but for the nation as a whole. I had no idea how much the United States depends on our Chesapeake Basin forests remaining healthy, productive and economically sustainable.

This adds a series of powerful arguments to the need to protect forests from the pressures of spreading development, to keep them from being fragmented and to value their stewardship by private landowners. And these are the very actions that will help assure that forests can continue to expand their role as the use of land that best protects the Chesapeake from the threats of mankind.