There is an old English proverb that says “If you want to be happy for a year, plant a garden. If you want to be happy for a lifetime plant a tree.” To this proverb, I would add “If you want happiness for generations to come, plant a forest.” Forests support hundreds of wildlife species, reduce soil erosion and flooding, filter pollutants out of stormwater and provide the source for our paper and wood products.

Forests are more than just a collection of trees. A forest is a community that includes the soil, water, plants and animals found there. Forests are also divided into distinct layers.

The top layer is called the canopy. This is leafy “roof” consists of the tops of the tallest trees. The canopy provides nesting sites for many birds, such as scarlet tanagers and cerulean warblers. Squirrels also nest in the canopy.

The next layer down, the understory, is made of smaller trees and tall shrubs. This is the layer that we often see when looking up into the forest. Insects, birds and mammals occupy this layer, foraging for food and building homes.

Below the understory is the shrub layer dominated by shrubs and tree seedlings. Many birds, such as the wood thrush, nest here and insects are very abundant.

Close to the ground is the herbaceous layer, made up of plants with soft, fleshy stems, such as ferns and woodland wildflowers. Herbaceous plants are usually less than 3 feet tall. Many insects live in this layer and ground-nesting birds, such as the ovenbird, depend on the vegetation in this layer for cover.

The forest floor is made up of the soil and decomposing material known as leaf litter. Decaying logs and branches are also part of this layer. The forest floor supports more living things than any of the other layers. Microorganisms, worms, insects, moles and shrews live in the soil. Turtles, salamanders, frogs and many small mammals also live here.

Not all forests have every layer. Climate, soil and dominant plant species determine which layers develop. Wildlife species are not always confined to any one layer. In fact, some wildlife need several forest layers. For example, wild turkeys forage on the forest floor but roost in tall trees.

Forests provide food, cover, nesting sites and safe migratory routes for insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and other wildlife.

Forests also help fish. Riparian forests (those growing alongside streams, creeks and rivers) are living filters. By intercepting and capturing rain, forests regulate the flow of stormwater and filter out nutrients and sediment. The roots of riparian vegetation stabilize the soil, reducing erosion into waterways. Trees and other overhanging vegetation shade waterways, helping to keep water temperatures cool. Through these functions, riparian forests help to maintain water quality for fish and other aquatic species. Riparian forests are essential to the life stages of aquatic life and more than one half of terrestrial life.

It has been estimated that at one time, the Chesapeake Bay watershed was more than 90 percent forested. Today that figure is less than 60 percent. Between 1985 and 1995, approximately 471,000 acres of forest lands were lost. Forested areas closest to the Chesapeake Bay have declined more rapidly, while some gains continue in the headwaters. The major cause for this loss is development for homes, malls, roads and businesses.

As communities grow, we must try to conserve forests for the health of the Bay, its wildlife and and ourselves. In addition to conserving forests, we must protect against fragmentation. Large tracts of forests carved up into smaller tracts fragment the forest. Fragmentation disrupts animal travel corridors; increases the potential for flooding; changes what wildlife the forest can support; increases the chance of invasion by exotic, undesirable plants; exposes the interior; and reduces the number of wildlife species.

Forests provide many recreational opportunities, like bird watching, hiking and camping.

Trees, in general, help to regulate the temperature, cooling areas in the summer. Forests act as filters removing soil, nutrients and particulates before they can enter a water supply. Forests also act as a sponge, intercepting and slowing rain, reducing flooding. They help to keep our air clean by removing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. And finally, forests are necessary for the many wood and paper products that Americans consume every day. The loss of forests affects every one of us.

“Next to the earth itself, the forest is the most useful servant of man.”

— Gifford Pinchot