Suddenly, there they were. After traveling down a bumpy, ridge top, dirt road after miles of nothing but trees, a new crop had sprouted up: houses. Large ones, with trees cleared for lawns and mountaintop views.
A paved road veered to the right; a sign advertised a dozen, two-acre building lots for sale.
This particular scene was in a Pennsylvania forest, but it could have been found in woodlands throughout the Bay watershed.
Bit by bit, the public’s appetite for land is taking a bite out of the region’s woodlands. The Chesapeake watershed, according to Bay Program figures, is losing more than 100 acres of woodlands a day.
The concern isn’t just that forests are being lost, but how they are being lost. Unlike logging in the past, after which the scarred landscape was usually left to recover, trees today are being replaced by roads, houses, convenience stores and the like. Trees will never grow back through pavement.
In the last decade, the watershed has lost more than 471,000 acres of forests — an area half the size of Delaware. But the full story is more complex. When settlers arrived nearly 400 years ago, forests blanketed the watershed. Today, forests remain as “patches” of various sizes, often disconnected from any other woodlands.This is known as “fragmentation” — the continued carving up of large forest blocks.
When forests are fragmented, the pieces add up to far less than the whole. Small, fragmented forests often don’t provide many of the services people value, from recreation to wildlife habitat to water quality protection. Social and economic effects of fragmentation also ripple through the woodlands. Small, isolated woodlots are more costly to manage for harvest than larger forests. And as development presses in, anti-logging sentiment is often aroused that pushes timbering farther away — adding pressure to remaining forest lands while those abandoned for timber management are often sold off for development.
Forest loss, and the increased fragmentation of what’s left, is a trend expected to continue. The Bay Program predicts the watershed’s population will grow by 3 million — to more than 18 million people — by 2020. That growth will require 1.7 million new homes, which will consume another 636,000 acres of agricultural and forest land, even as more timber will be needed to build the houses.
“People want more and more land; they want larger lots that use a lot of land,” said John Barber, a director of the Northern Neck Soil and Water Conservation District in Virginia, and chair of the Bay Program’s Forestry Workgroup. The bottom line, he said, is “the land comes goes out of production, whether it is agricultural land or forest land.”
The Forestry Workgroup, in the coming months, is planning a public dialogue on the future of forests in the Bay watershed, 80 percent of which are privately owned. The aim is to raise the public’s awareness about the many roles that forests play, threats to woodlands and — ultimately — to forge some agreement about how forests should be managed in the future.
Previously, much of the attention on forests in the Bay watershed has focused on “riparian” forests — streamside strips of trees as little as 35 feet wide that help to keep pollution out of the water, stabilize streambanks and improve habitat for fish and other water-dwellers. The Bay Program has a goal of planting 2,010 miles of streamside forests by 2010.
But streamside forests only represent the “last line of defense” for rivers, said Rick Cooksey, a liaison to the Bay Program from the U.S. Forest Service. Keeping larger, intact woodlands is important, he said, because they protect large areas of open land where falling rain recharges the groundwater. Headwater forests protect the water quality of streams which supply drinking water. And, acre for acre, forests generally give up fewer nutrients — the pollutants of most concern to the Bay — than any other land use. As forests are replaced, the amount of nutrients will gradually rise. “Forests are the best land use for water quality,” Cooksey said.
Fragmentation can begin in ways that hardly seem noticeable.
A cabin in the woods may seem harmless enough, but the road that leads to it and the power line right-of-way that carries electricity are avenues used by exotic species to invade forest interiors, where they compete with native species and may threaten the overall health of the forest community. Any dogs and cats running wild around the cabin add to the problem for local wildlife.
“When we say urban sprawl, that doesn’t necessarily just mean people around the fringes of the city,” Barber said. “If you start looking in the mountains, or anywhere near the water, you find the second home comes into play. It is the same impact as urban sprawl, even though it may not be in an urban area. It’s taking pieces of property and dividing them up for residential purposes.”
As development chips away at the perimeter, or even cuts into the heart of a forest tract, the amount of “interior” forest — areas several hundred feet from the edge — is gradually reduced until the woodland becomes unsuitable for wildlife. Many species, such as forest birds, some mammals and others, require large interiors, where they are protected from edge-dwelling predators, to survive.
As woodlands become isolated from one another, and individual forests are reduced in size, those species often have nowhere to go. The woods becomes a trap where, ultimately, they will die. Many forest songbirds, which require roughly a 300-foot buffer from the forest edge, have declined in developing areas as woodlands are chopped up.
At the same time, increased fragmentation — and increases in forest edge — give rise to species that prefer to live on the margins, such as deer, raccoons and skunks. The region’s surge in deer is, to a degree, a byproduct of fragmentation.
“The most valuable thing in Pennsylvania now and in the future is going to be a large, undisturbed area,” said Jerry Hassinger, wildlife diversity supervisor with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “We’re slowly pecking away at them. A right-of-way here, a road over there and a house up there. It never stops.”
Development also causes what Cooksey called a “shadow effect” over nearby forest land that threatens the timber industry and the rural communities that depend on them.
“Not only is there the footprint of the actual buildings that are put up, but people’s attitudes toward forestry cause a shadow effect around the communities where they live,” Cooksey said. “We are seeing an increase in the exclusion of the practice of forestry.”
The timber industry is one landowner with a vested interest in keeping large tracts of forest intact — it becomes difficult, and ultimately expensive — to harvest trees from ever-smaller forests. But new residents often object to harvests, and sometimes seek ordinances to prevent timbering because it will alter the appearance of the landscape for years, even decades.
In Virginia, a recent Department of Forestry study found that nearly 20 percent of all forest lands in the state were effectively removed from forest management because they were too densely populated. The result, according to the study, is the the state is approaching the point where demand for forest products will outpace the rate at which timber can be grown on available land.
“This issue is tremendous,” said Mike Foreman, who worked on the study. “Fragmentation is the issue of the 21st century.”
Part of the problem, Barber said, is the rural nature of the fragmentation issue. “If you’re in a rural area, everybody is very reluctant to tell anyone what they can and can’t do with their land,” Barber said. “So you’re in sort of a Catch-22, because no one wants them to divide and develop the land because of its impact on the quality of life and so forth, but nobody wants to put ordinances in place which might limit that.”
Often, in an effort to protect forest lands, rural areas will zone land allowing only sparse development, such as one house for every 20 acres or so. But this creates its own set of problems — it fragments ownership of large forests — something known as parcelization. When many people own small chunks, they can’t effectively manage for wildlife, timber or anything else.
“It’s not just forests getting smaller and smaller,” Cooksey said. “But with this parcelization of ownership, it becomes harder and harder to reach a representative mass of people so they can make good decisions and not mess up the resource or hurt their local environment. That’s a challenge.”
Those efforts are hampered, Cooksey said, because many people don’t want to feel that government agencies are telling them what to do with their land, and because there is a declining number of foresters available to work with landowners.
“We’re talking about people’s land,” Cooksey said. “So we need to respect the fact that this is an issue of trust. Face-to-face is the most effective way to work with people to gain their trust.”
The public as a whole may suffer, Cooksey said, because small landowners are more likely to limit access to their property for hunting, fishing and other purposes than large tract owners. As a result, “no trespassing” signs begin popping up when forests are subdivided. “One of the greatest demands on our forests currently is quality outdoor recreation,” Cooksey said. “We’re seeing less and less of a private land base that is available for that.”
While almost everyone can agree that there are many impacts to forest fragmentation, a more difficult challenge may be deciding what — if anything — should be done about it.
Do people who want to protect forests for songbirds want to protect them for timber harvesting? Do timber harvesters want to allow “old growth” forests, which support unique wildlife communities, to develop? If people want less harvesting, can they curb their appetite for forest products — everything from timber to toilet paper?
“We can be smart about managing for one or two objectives, but we are not very good at managing for a dozen objectives or so,” said Robert Gardner, a landscape ecologist with the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory, who teaches a course in fragmentation. “Multi-variant problems kill you.”
The Forestry Workgroup earlier this year conducted a series of roundtables with scientists and other experts to begin framing issues related to fragmentation. In coming months, the workgroup plans to work with “stakeholder groups” to identify policies that may promote fragmentation, as well as potential solutions.
For example, does the property tax structure encourage people to sell off forest land to development? Does the estate tax cause heirs to sell off forests to pay inheritance taxes? Does the pattern of road, sewer and other infrastructure development lead to fragmentation? Should states consider “urban growth boundaries” like those in Oregon to contain development in specific areas? Or, do people even consider fragmentation a problem worth dealing with?
Indeed, Barber noted, what’s good or bad in the forests is a matter of perspective. When people build houses on a mountain ridge in the middle of a forest, it may improve the quality of life for the people living in the homes. “It’s great for the people living on the ridge,” he said, “but from the viewpoint of all the other people who want to use the forest, it has a negative impact.”
From a production standpoint, forest land fragmented into 20-acre parcels creates a landscape that is not easily managed for production. Others see that fragmented ownership as beneficial for the same reason — it prevents harvest.
“One could argue that fragmentation is bad, but parcelization is good from the point of view of forest preservation, because breaking up forests into small parcels makes them less efficient to clear and also tends to put the forests in the hands of people who are interested in having forests for its own sake, rather than as a commercial venture,” said Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office, who participated in the roundtables earlier this year.
Others argue there is a responsibility to meet the demand for timber products locally, as well as to support the communities that depend on the timber industry. Every American, on average, consumes about 18 cubic feet of lumber and 749 pounds of paper annually — figures that have remained fairly steady in recent years. That has to come from somewhere, Cooksey said.
“We need to think about the fairness of exporting that demand for fiber and paper and lumber to places like South American and Indonesia,” Cooksey said. “Is that what we think is a good thing to do, or should we try to handle more of our demand here? If we’re serious about sustainability, we need to think about that more.”
Ultimately, Gardner said, the degree to which people think fragmentation is bad — or good — depends on what they want from the forests. If they want lots of deer, fragmentation is good. If they want lots of certain songbirds, it’s bad.
Dealing with fragmentation also requires them to think about what types of forests they want. While there are more forests in the watershed today than 100 years ago, Gardner said, there are fewer old growth forests because woodlands have not been managed to promote old trees. There is concern that the region’s oak forests are on the decline because of the lack of fires — oak trees, early on, appear to need fire to clear out competing vegetation. If people want more oak forests, we may need more fires — something many people won’t like, he said.
“It’s the same way with the Bay and managing fisheries,” Gardner said. “It’s a multi-objective problem. The Bay would be fine if everyone would just move away and stay away for 150 years. It would recover just great. And I could do a real good job with forests if you could just give me all the Piedmont area around the Chesapeake Bay and let me move everybody out. But we’re in a multi-objective world, and that is where the rub comes in.”
Impacts of Forest Fragmentation
Forests, and forest values, can be diminished in many ways by fragmentation. Among them:
Forest Health and Diversity: Fragmented forests can have a higher incidence of exotic species and invasive weeds and may be more vulnerable to insect and disease attacks such as the southern pine beetle, and fire.
Forest Habitat: Wildlife populations are dramatically impacted by forest fragmentation, resulting in lower species diversity or even elimination as habitat is reduced and natural corridors are degraded or destroyed.
Forest Ecology Functions: Environments altered severely by development and associated storm water practices can produce changes in streams (such as increased flooding frequencies), their health and water quality.
Economically Viable Forest Units: Fragmentation and ownership parcelization can lead to a greatly reduced or completely eliminated base for valuable forest product production, a major contributor to local and state economies.
Forest Recreation: Fragmentation and parcelization lead to reduced access, (increased posting of no trespassing signs), and lost recreational opportunity.
Community Livability: Despite the attractiveness of economic devel- opment to rural communities, forest loss during growth and development can reduce economic diversity and lower the quality of life in a community.