Trees are, indeed, quite remarkable. They are integral to air and water quality as well as a source of water, mitigation for stormwater and control for erosion and sediment.
One hundred mature trees can remove 53 tons of carbon dioxide annually, along with 430 pounds of other air pollutants, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Forests provide recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat and are a source of scenic beauty. They contribute important economic benefits, from the production and harvesting of wood products to increases in property values.
Yes, it seems that forests do it all. They are, indeed, an integral component of our health, economy and general well-being.
Pennsylvania forests occupy 17 million acres or 58 percent of the state. They are a feature, to varying degrees, of every Pennsylvania county and exist in a variety of configurations, from extensive wood- land tracts to farm woodlots to forested buffers. Approximately 70 percent of the state’s forested acreage is privately owned.
Trees are also essential to the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay. They control stormwater, the greatest source of pollutants in the Bay and its tributaries. Trees reduce runoff by drawing up large quantities of water from the surrounding soil. The leaves, branches and trunk surfaces of trees intercept, absorb and subsequently evaporate up to 40 percent of the water they capture.
Trees also take up harmful chemicals such as metals or solvents, transforming them into less harmful substances. One large tree can capture and filter up to 36,500 gallons of water annually, according the American Forest Foundation. Intercepting water and, thereby, providing the opportunity for it to infiltrate into the ground, as virtually all of it did historically, reduces runoff. Then, as groundwater levels rise, the number and volume of
flow in seeps and springs increases, ensuring a strong and consistent base flow in streams.
From an aerial perspective, Pennsylvania’s forests appear to be staying constant in size, except perhaps in the more rapidly growing regions of Pennsylvania. But the quality of forests has declined, and they continue to be at risk from an increasing number of both natural and human forces. These include unsustainable and mismanaged harvesting practices, invasive plants such as the nonnative bush honeysuckle, invasive insects such as the spotted lanternfly and the large population of ever-hungry white-tailed deer. All of these developments threaten the natural regeneration processes that have been the hallmark of Pennsylvania’s forests since its founding.
The importance of forests to the environment, health and the economy, and the many threats they are currently facing, are cause for significant concern, if not alarm. Citizens, elected officials and policymakers interested in taking action to address the various threats may wonder what they can realistically accomplish.
Woodland owners, who collectively own 70 percent of Pennsylvania’s forest acreage, can take it upon themselves to learn and implement best management practices. They can also engage forestry professionals to provide advice on the use of silvi-cultural and best management practices, especially when harvesting. Landowners harvest their woods relatively infrequently; those who do not obtain expert advice are more likely to harvest unsustainably, doing damage to the health and value of their woods.
On a policy level, elected officials, policymakers and citizens can ensure that forested landscapes are given due consideration in the community comprehensive planning process. Pennsylvania counties are required to adopt and maintain a comprehensive plan under the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code. Local municipalities, particularly townships, have the responsibility to draw on their county’s comprehensive plan and, if needed, to develop a plan of their own. These plans provide the foundation and rationale for conserving forested land.
When undertaking comprehensive planning, policymakers, elected officials and citizens can ensure that the background studies prepared for comprehensive plans accurately reflect the history, location and importance of local forests to community life.
In addition, tree species as well as potential threats from pests and disease should be included in the natural resources inventory. Current forest management practices of landowners can be described and evaluated.
A goals and objectives statement pertaining to forestry would follow from the background studies. The community should explicitly define what role it desires forests to have in the life and landscape of the county or municipality in the future.
An important element of a comprehensive plan is a future land use map, which is the precursor or basis for a zoning map. This map establishes the foundation for the development of zoning, subdivision and land development ordinances. These ordinances have the force of law and, as such, undergo a formal approval process, after which they can serve to promote forest conservation.
A comprehensive plan offers a variety of tools for putting forestry conservation efforts into place. Establishing a forestry zoning district ordinance (with accompanying map) can ensure that existing forested landscapes that have not been developed or slated for development are conserved for both existing and future generations. A forestry conservation designation can be included in an agricultural zoning district, or a forestry overlay zone can be established within a conservation or agricultural zone. A professional planner with a natural resource background can provide guidance on the variety of tools available to serve the community’s goals for forest conservation.
Through concerted efforts by both communities and forest landowners, it is possible to both conserve — and draw benefits from — Pennsylvania’s forests, while ensuring that these forests do their part to protect the Chesapeake Bay and endure for generations to come.
Paul Solomon and Jeanne M. Riley, both active in planning and managing forests, are co-authors of a new publication, Sustaining and Improving Pennsylvania’s Forest Land through Comprehensive Plans: the Vital Role of Counties and Municipalities, which offers advice for public officials about management strategies to protect forests as unique natural resources. The report is free upon request to the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.