The Bay states will need to protect about 1.1 million acres — an area almost the size of Delaware — in the next decade to meet their goal of permanently preserving one-fifth of the watershed as open space.
That could cost about $1.8 billion, according to a new report from the nonprofit Trust for Public Land and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
“The goal is within reach, but not without a stretch,” stated the report, “Keeping Our Commitment, Preserving Land in the Chesapeake Watershed.”
Meeting the goal would mean stepped-up spending by all three Bay states, local governments and private conservation organizations. But the report also suggests that the region could eventually seek support from Congress — if the land preservation program is formed into a strategic, regional plan.
The goal was set in the Bay Program’s Chesapeake 2000 Agreement as one of several objectives aimed at protecting land and managing growth. The agreement was signed last year by the Chesapeake Executive Council, which includes the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia; the EPA administrator; the mayor of the District of Columbia; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
Other commitments in the agreement called for curbing the rate of sprawl development by 30 percent a year, reviewing tax policies that promote sprawl, supporting planning efforts at the local level and a host of other actions.
“There is some point of growth at which the Chesapeake Bay will be beyond repair, and if we don’t grow smarter, we’re on track for doing irreparable injury to the Bay,” said Maryland Del. Brian Frosh, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “It’s a big price tag, but it’s not insurmountable.”
The Bay’s 64,000 square mile watershed covers an area 16 times larger than the Chesapeake; consequently, its water quality is greatly influenced by activities on the land.
“We can’t focus our attention on water without simultaneously focusing our attention on the land — the two are directly tied together,” said Sen. Russ Fairchild, head of the Pennsylvania delegation to the commission.
The land preservation goal applies only to the Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia portions of the watershed. To date, about 6.7 million acres of that area — or 17.2 percent — has been preserved. Much of the land was protected decades ago, as state forests, national forests, state and national parks and other public areas.
Also included in the numbers are farms permanently protected from development through conservation easements and areas protected by private land trusts and conservancies.
But the report found that land protection went on at a brisk pace during the 1990s. An analysis by the Trust for Public Land found that during the eight-year period from 1992 through 1999, about 400,000 acres were permanently protected within the watershed.
That works out to about 50,000 acres a year. But at that rate, the Bay region would protect only about half of the 1.1 million acres needed to meet the goal.
During the eight-year study period, about 28.5 percent of the land was protected through private efforts, such as those of land conservancies. If that rate continues, it would leave the shortfall to be filled by state, federal and local programs at about 786,000 acres.
The average cost of protecting an acre of land between 1992–99, either through purchase or securing permanent conservation easements, was $2,255, according to the report. That would put the cost of protecting an additional 786,000 acres at about $1.8 billion — three times what the states spent during the eight-year study period.
“We need to step up the effort and put more money into place to meet this commitment,” said Debi Osborne, Chesapeake field office director for the Trust for Public Land.
The report cites case studies of other states that have turned to a variety of techniques to preserve open space in recent years. Florida, which has a land area similar to that of the Bay watershed, has twice approved $3 billion, 10-year bond measures to protect land.
The report’s land acquisition estimates are higher than preliminary estimates made last fall. Then, the shortfall was thought to be only about 1 million acres. But as states refined their numbers of “permanently preserved” lands, the shortfall grew to about 1.1 million acres. That could grow even further as better estimates are made over time.
“In my mind, it is going to be way above 1.1 million acres that needs to be protected,” said Lee Epstein, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s lands program, who questioned the validity of some acres being counted. If the shortfall grows, costs could increase further.
The Bay Program has not determined whether the responsibility for closing that gap should be divided evenly among the states, or whether each state should seek to achieve the 20 percent goal within its borders.
So far, the report said, Maryland has protected 14.7 percent of its portion of the watershed; Pennsylvania 18.8 percent; and Virginia 16.1 percent.
The report shows that land was protected most aggressively in Maryland and Pennsylvania in recent years.
During the study period, Maryland protected more than 152,000 acres, about 119,000 acres of which was by state, federal and local governments; the rest by private land trusts.
In Pennsylvania, about 153,000 acres were protected from 1992–99, about 147,000 acres of which were preserved through state and local funding, almost all of the rest through private initiatives.
In Virginia, only 90,000 acres were protected during the study period. Of that, 80 percent was protected through donations of land and easements to private conservation organizations and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, an entity created by the state to encourage the donation of land. The remaining 18,000 acres were protected with state and federal funds.
“We’ve made much progress in Virginia in recent years, but in order to reach our land preservation goals, we must do more,” said Sen. Bill Bolling, a Virginia member of the commission.
To fill the gap, the report suggests that all the states need to step up land protection funding. It also said states should consider expanding tax credits that encourage donations of land or easements, expanding public-private land preservation partnerships and giving local governments more land protection tools.
While much of the burden will rest with the states, the report identifies other opportunities for help.
For example, programs such as the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy program, which provides money to purchase easements that keep private woodlands from conversion to non-forest uses, are not fully utilized within the Bay states. Federal transportation programs could also be leveraged to produce additional funding for the purchase of easements. And, states could take better advantage of federal farmland protection programs.
Additional federal money could be on the way. Congress last year approved a multiyear conservation spending plan — the Land Conservation, Preservation and Infrastructure Improvement Program — that could substantially increase federal support for state land acquisition programs in coming years, if it is fully funded.
The Bush administration has indicated that it supports increased funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the federal government’s primary tool to support state land protection.
The Bay region could also seek Congressional support for a major land acquisition initiative, the report suggests. Last year, Congress committed billions of dollars for the Everglades. But before that could happen here, the report said the Bay states would have to demonstrate significant, scaled-up funding efforts, as well as a more clearly defined regional strategy — and rationale — for land protection.
“Before we would do anything to petition Congress’ greater involvement, we would have to develop a real clear strategy in our region with an implementation plan that would have real strong state and local elements,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “And they would have to show funding enhancements far beyond what we currently do.”
A part of that strategy could come from a “lands resources assessment” now under way by the Bay Program. That review, expected at the end of this year or early next year, is trying to assess the status and trends of the region’s forest and agricultural lands, and will identify the most valuable — and vulnerable — of those lands.
But targeting lands for protection could have problems. In Pennsylvania, for example, rural counties that already have large preserved state forests or state game lands don’t want any additional land taken off the tax roles, said Dick Sprenkle, deputy secretary for conservation and engineering services, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Targeting lands in rapidly developing areas, such as Lancaster County, has a different problem, he said. Land is so expensive that the cost of meeting the 20 percent goal would skyrocket.
“I think it’s going to be a considerable challenge,” Sprenkle said. “It’s difficult to assemble a significant amount of acreage. We can fund a lot of projects that conservancies and local governments are interested in, but for the most part, we are protecting 100 acres here, or 200 acres there. It takes a lot of those to add up to the numbers that you need.”
Also working against targeting efforts is the political reality that states are generally under pressure to distribute land acquisition money to communities over a wide area.
Even in Maryland, which recently unveiled a “GreenPrint” program identifying the state’s most ecologically sensitive land for potential preservation, much of state’s land protection money goes to other places. That’s because money for many land programs is divided among jurisdictions based on formulas, rather than ecological priorities.
Copies of the report are available from the Chesapeake Bay Commission, 410-263-3420, and the Trust for Public Land, 202-543-7552. It may also be downloaded from the commission’s web site, www.chesbay.state.va.usor from the trust’s web site: www.tpl.org