The Bay Program’s goal of preserving one-fifth of the watershed as permanently protected open space is getting a boost from a coalition of land trusts throughout the region.

The nonprofit organizations have pledged to preserve 28.5 percent of the 1.1 million additional acres the region needs to protect to reach the goal by 2010.

That means the land trusts — like the states — would have to dramatically step up their rate of land preservation, either through outright acquisition or through the purchase of easements, to meet the goal.

“It is really an understanding that we will not make our goal unless we do even better than we have been doing in the past,” said Susan Clark, of the The Trust for Public Land, which had worked to get land conservation groups to sign onto the commitment.

A group of 31 Maryland land trusts signed a “conservation pledge” committing themselves to the goal in late February. Clark said her group was planning a similar event in Virginia, and perhaps Pennsylvania.

The pledge comes at a time where tight state budgets have put land protection programs at risk.

In Maryland, state funds for land preservation were likely to take cuts of more than 50 percent in each of the next two years. Some programs in Pennsylvania are facing cuts as well.

But not all the news is bleak. Federal funding for land purchases is increasing. And in cash-strapped Virginia, the

General Assembly approved two bond measures that would boost state land acquisition.

The legislature approved submitting a $119 bond measure to voters this fall that would provide $30 million to purchase land for state parks and nature preserves. The assembly also approved a $166 million public building authority bond — which does not require voter approval — that contains $20 million for park land purchases. In addition, the assembly directed Secretary of Natural Resources Tayloe Murphy to report on options for long-term funding for land protection.

Land trusts are an important part of the region’s open space preservation efforts because they raise private funds to protect farmland, buy natural areas and protect other open spaces. Still, the availability of state funding can greatly affect the acreages that land trusts can protect.

The nonprofit groups often negotiate better deals, and move more quickly, than government agencies in protecting land.

Therefore, they frequently protect lands for states and are later reimbursed. Without state backing, some of those deals would never happen.

“State funding is critical,” said Rob Etgen, director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy in Maryland. “Any slippage now will do irreparable harm to the tremendous progress that we’ve made.”

As a result, land trusts — and the private money they raise — are considered a crucial element in achieving the goal. At the land trust signing ceremony, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening praised the groups for their commitment to the goal and “continuing an essential land preservation partnership.”

At the same time, he blasted the Maryland General Assembly’s planned cuts in his budget, saying they would be a “disaster” for land preservation.

“What is being proposed are, in fact, crippling cuts that will make it impossible to honor our commitments — our commitments to the Chesapeake Bay, our commitments to land preservation, and our commitments to our children and our future,” Glendening said.

“There is only so much that private land trusts can do on their own,” he said. “It is incumbent on the state to be an active partner and to step forward and to help the land trust community. Partners mean we are both meeting our obligations.”

The land preservation goal was one of the highlights of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement. It, and a companion goal aimed at reducing the rate of “harmful sprawl” by 30 percent, were aimed at protecting sensitive land and habitats, as well as curbing development, which can increase stormwater runoff.

A report last year by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of the Bay states, and The Trust for Public Land estimated it would cost the region about $1.8 billion to protect enough open space to meet the Chesapeake 2000 commitment.

Nonetheless, Maryland Del. Charles McClenahan, chairman of the commission’s state delegation, called land conservation “a cost-effective method of protecting the Chesapeake Bay.”

“We pay the price of buying land and easements once, but if we allow the Chesapeake Bay to become further compromised, we will be paying for generations to come,” he said.

The land preservation goal applies only to the Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia portions of the watershed. Of the roughly 39 million total acres in that area, about 6.7 million acres have been preserved — or 17.2 percent. That leaves about 1.1 million acres to be protected by 2010, or about 120,000 acres a year.

But much of the land that has been preserved so far was protected decades ago, as state forests, national forests, state and national parks, and other public areas.

In the last decade, land in the watershed was protected at the rate of only about 50,000 acres a year, according to last year’s report by the commission and the Trust for Public Land, “Keeping Our Commitment: Preserving Land in the Chesapeake Watershed.”

During that period, it said, land trusts were responsible for protecting 28.5 percent of the land protected in the last decade. By pledging to preserve that same percentage for the Chesapeake 2000 commitment, the land trusts — like the states — would have to dramatically ratchet up their rate of land protection.

For example, Etgen said, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy plans to protect about 5,000 acres of farms and natural areas annually to do its share of the goal, nearly doubling its pace of the past decade. “We’ve got to kick it up a notch,” he said. “We’ve never had a 5,000-acre year.”

So far, Bay Program figures show that Virginia has protected 2.2 million acres, Pennsylvania 3.5 million, Maryland about 1 million, and the District of Columbia about 6,700 acres.

The Bay Program has defined permanently preserved land as areas which have permanent conservation easements or are owned by government agencies or nonprofit organizations for “natural resource, forestry, agriculture, wildlife, recreation, historic, cultural or open space use, or to sustain water quality and living resource values.”

1.1 million acres in perspective

The shortfall in meeting the 20 percent land preservation goal is about 1.1 million acres.

That is:

  • Almost the size of Delaware, which is about 1.25 million acres.
  • About twice the size of Rhode Island, which is about 668,000 acres.
  • About half the size of Yellowstone National Park, which is 2.2 million acres.

But the 1.1 million acres would not all be publicly owned, like Yellowstone. Much of the additional land would be protected through easements, in which people retain ownership of the land but agree not to develop the property or make other conservation commitments.