What if we could build a machine that could remove chemicals and dirt from the air and water; suck up CO2 from the atmosphere and store it for 50 years or more; organically filter runoff; recycle pollutants; cool our communities; and reduce energy consumption? And, what if this machine could do all of these things without using electricity or fossil fuel and at minimal cost to operate and maintain, and could be delivered in such a diversity of colors, shapes and sizes, that almost any community would welcome the installation of such a machine in their neighborhood?

Well, there is such a machine: trees.

In our efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, sometimes attention seems exclusively focused on fixing problems — the need for practices that reduce pollution from the land, runoff from our cities and nutrients in wastewater. Not everything needed to restore the Bay and its rivers requires installing a new practice or restoration project. We also need to pay attention to conserving those parts of the watershed that already protect our water, like those marvelous natural machines — our forests.

Of the 41 million acres of land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, about 55 percent, or 24 million acres, are forested. But the amount of forest continues to decline each year — 100 acres per day on average — even though we know that forests are the best land cover for protecting water quality and can say with confidence that every acre of forest converted to other uses means more nutrients entering the Bay and its rivers.

It is this simple: Forests matter to the Chesapeake Bay.

That is why each year, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the U.S. Forest Service honor those who demonstrate a strong commitment to forests. The Chesapeake Forest Champion awards recognize the exemplary efforts of individuals and groups in conserving, restoring and celebrating Chesapeake forests. The four 2012 winners were scheduled to be announced during the Chesapeake Watershed Forum in September:

  • Ed Piestrack of Nanticoke, PA, accepted an award for Exemplary Forest Steward. Ed and his wife, Wanda, have managed a certified tree farm on 885 acres of forestland in Stueben County, NY, since 1997. The Piestracks have long managed their land through sustainable harvests under the guidance of a Forest Stewardship Plan written by a licensed forester. As active land stewards, they have restored forests plagued by invasive plants, reduced erosion from roads, restored vernal pool wetlands and improved wildlife habitat. They have also taken steps to keep their forest intact when it is transferred to their children. Ed and Wanda are active members of the New York Forest Owners Association and host "woods walks" on their land to educate others.
  • Nelson Hoy & Elizabeth Biggs also accepted an award for Exemplary Forest Steward. Hoy and Biggs operate Berriedale Farm near Williamsville, VA, in the Cowpasture River watershed. Berriedale is a heritage family farm raising a rare breed of red poll cattle. It is the first farm in the United States to be protected by both Land and Rare Breeds Conservation easements. Hoy and Biggs also manage the property in partnership with the Nature Conservancy as a critical corridor between the George Washington National Forest, which shares its boundary on the east, and the Virginia Highland Wildlife Management Area, its boundary to the west. They have integrated their 50-acre forest into their overall farm operations and are working to restore the Appalachian hardwood forest, increase biodiversity and protect the karst topography, while also providing a sustainable income source for the farm. They have established a specialty forest products business on the farm using an innovative, low-impact horse logging operation.
  • Zack Roeder of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources received the award for Most Effective At Engaging the Public.
    Roeder was recognized for his work as a service forester for Franklin & Cumberland counties. In addition to working with woodland owners, Roeder built partnerships in two largely agricultural counties to champion the benefits of forests. He was instrumental in helping farmers to develop Forest Stewardship Plans for their land and implement conservation practices for woods and streams. Roeder has worked with local teachers in the Stroud Water Research Center's Leaf Pack Network and helped a local high school create a "grow out nursery" used for riparian buffer plantings. He has also coordinated Growing Native, a program that engages thousands of volunteers in the Potomac River region each year to collect native hardwood and shrub seeds for propagation.
  • The Savage River Watershed Association accepted the award for Greatest On-The-Ground Impact. The Savage River watershed contains many of Maryland's last reproducing brook trout fisheries. Since 2006, the SRWA has championed the connection between their watershed's forest landscape and its healthy streams. They have worked to conserve and enhance the area's forests as a way to maintain stream quality and to support our iconic native trout. The SRWA has removed and controlled invasive plants in the wildland areas of Bear Pen Run and planted more than 4,000 red spruce seedlings along streams to replace the eastern hemlocks damaged by the insect pest, the hemlock wooly adelgid. The SRWA has also joined the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Marcellus Shale Monitoring Coalition to help study the potential negative impacts natural gas drilling poses to forest health and stream quality. Members have already volunteered more than 800 hours monitoring stream conditions this year.

In rural and urban areas alike, trees are one of our greatest allies in protecting our streams and reducing the pollution that flows off the land into local waters and, ultimately, to the Bay itself.

The quality of the nominations we received for this year's Forest Champion awards were truly inspiring. Their examples are a continual reminder of the positive local action and careful land stewardship that is taking place to sustain our treasured natural resources and protect the Chesapeake Bay.

Together, we can get the job done.