Maryland losing battle to protect farmlands, report finds

Maryland has the largest farm preservation program in the nation, but the state is still losing 3 acres of farmland to development for each acre that is saved, according to a study.

A report released in June by a group representing farmers, environmentalists, developers and public officials said the government needs to better fund and focus existing programs to preserve the best agricultural land.

The report does not attempt to estimate how much money is needed to buy development rights or where it should come from. That will be part of the next phase of the study, said Jill Schwartz, mid-Atlantic field director for the American Farmland Trust.

Maryland leads all other states, with 286,000 acres permanently protected from development. That made it the ideal place to study how well farm preservation programs are working, said Ralph Grossi, president of the Washington-based American Farmland Trust.

The report by the Chesapeake Farms for the Future Board found that lack of money to buy development rights is a major roadblock to saving more farms from developmental pressures. “We have four requests (to sell development easements) for every one we can grant,” said Wayne McGinnis, a Baltimore County farmer and chairman of the study group.

Maryland and some of its counties have several programs that use public funds to buy development rights from farmers, guaranteeing that the land cannot be sold for development. The report praised those programs, especially the new Rural Legacy program enacted last year, which attempts to protect large tracts that are valuable for farming and the environment.

But the report said the state needs to focus its efforts to protect land that is most worthy.

The report and its recommendations have the support of three groups — environmentalists, farmers and developers — that often are at odds over policies affecting farming and development.

John Korticamp, executive vice president of the Maryland Home Builders Association, said developers took part in the study and endorsed the findings because “we think ultimately it’s going to be a better product with our involvement in the process.”

He said home builders agree that the best farmlands should be preserved, but with population growth continuing, some development of farmland is inevitable.

Dead loggerhead turtles found

More than 120 loggerhead sea turtles have been found dead along the Virginia coast since May 18, when large numbers of the endangered creatures began coming ashore.

Researchers at the Virginia Marine Science Museum don’t know why the turtles are dying. The museum’s stranding team, which works from Cape Charles on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to the North Carolina border, found only 115 dead turtles all of last year.

This year’s deaths are the highest recorded by the team since it started tracking the turtles several years ago. Necropsies performed on the turtles found their stomachs were full of their preferred food, horseshoe crab. Researchers say the hearty appetite indicates that disease was probably not the cause. The turtles also showed no signs of collisions with watercraft.

“It’s very difficult to say why these animals are dying,” said Mark Swingle, the director of the museum team. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Loggerheads can live 50 years or more and grow to more than 300 pounds. Most of the dead animals have been 10 to 15 years old.

Large numbers of young turtles flock to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to feed on crabs.

Bog turtle halts plans for park

The discovery in late May of a 4-inch turtle brought plans to create a recreational lake in Pennsylvania’s Lebanon County to a halt, costing Jackson Township thousands of dollars.

One bog turtle, a member of an officially designated threatened species, was discovered in the lake bed of the former Stracks Dam Reservoir, after a three-day search ordered by the U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service.

It’s the second recent incident in the Bay watershed where an endangered species has conflicted with development. This spring, an environmental group sued the USF&WS for allegedly failing to protect the Delmarva fox squirrel from impacts of a proposed development in Maryland.

Jackson Township had planned to rebuild Stracks Dam and create a recreational lake. “That’s $50,000 down the drain,” said township zoning officer Brian Hoffman, referring to the amount paid for the 45-acre site in late 1995.

Township crews had also reduced the slope of the dam breach to prevent erosion, removed saplings from the dam breast and improved an access road to the dam area. “We probably have another 25 grand sunk in that place,” Hoffman said.

The bog turtle, found in scattered sites from western Massachusetts to northern Maryland, was declared a “threatened” species last year. The designation is one step removed from “endangered,” but there is very little practical difference in the two labels.

6 governors ask EPA to soften emissions plan

Six states have submitted a joint plan asking the federal government to ease requirements for cutting smog-producing nitrogen oxide emissions over the next six years.

The proposal comes as the summer ozone season got off to an earlier-than-normal start in the Bay states, with numerous exceedences of the federal standard reported in late spring. Ozone is formed with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds mix in the air in the presence of sunlight.

The EPA last year approved a more stringent standard for ozone to protect public health, and proposed sharp reductions in NOx emissions, particularly for Midwestern states, to protect downwind air quality. The action also protects the Bay because NOx is a major source of nitrogen to the Chesapeake.

In their proposal, West Virginia, Virginia, Alabama, Michigan, Tennessee and Ohio pledged to reduce such emissions by 55 percent of 1990 levels by April 2002 and 65 percent by April 2004. But that is less than the EPA has sought.

The EPA proposed to reduce utility emissions by 85 percent, emissions from major industrial sources by 70 percent and those from small industrial sources by 50 percent. The reductions were supposed to occur by 2002, but the EPA indicated it was studying whether to extend the deadline to 2004.

The agency is expected to issue final emissions rules later this year.

West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood formed a coalition of mostly Midwestern governors last fall in response to the EPA plan to force 22 states in the East and Midwest to reduce ozone-producing emissions from utility and industrial sources.

“Getting several states with different environmental conditions and industrial foundations to agree on anything is very difficult indeed, especially under the constraints of a three-and-a-half-month deadline,” he said. Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina and Wisconsin agreed with the basics of the proposal but were preparing separate plans for the EPA.

An environmentalist said the six-state plan is suspect because it was drafted with the help of polluting industries. “No matter how they try to spin it, this is an effort to weaken EPA’s cleanup plan,” said Frank O’Donnell, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Air Trust, a coalition of environmental groups.

O’Donnell said some states declined to join the plan because an e-mail from an Ohio utility executive indicated an Underwood aide wanted utilities to publicly oppose the plan while they actually supported it.

Worth Noting:

Bald eagle rebound: Maryland’s bald eagle population is at a 21-year-high, partly because of efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, officials say. Aerial surveys conducted earlier this year by the Department of Natural Resources observed 232 pairs of bald eagles. Nearly 300 young were being cared for by these eagles, the highest number since the surveys began in 1977. “The recovery of the bald eagle population in Maryland has been truly remarkable,” DNR Secretary John R. Griffin said, attributing the increase primarily to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. Bald eagles are dependent on the Bay and its tidal tributaries for nesting and feeding. Most nest sites were located near the Bay’s shoreline or nearby tidal rivers.

CBF seeks funds: The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has committed itself to a $44 million campaign to rebuild fisheries populations, reduce pollution and bring more citizens into the battle to save the Bay. The foundation program, called the Covenant to Save Chesapeake Bay, sets goals for 2005 that include adding 125,000 acres of wetlands, 1,500 miles of forested buffers along shorelines, and 160,000 acres of underwater grasses. Other goals include increasing the Bay’s oyster population by tenfold and reopening 1,500 miles of river to migratory fish. CBF President William Baker said the foundation has already raised half of the $44 million it will need for the program.

Barley vs. blooms: A byproduct of beer’s main ingredient may be the key to fighting algae in water supplies without using harmful and expensive herbicides. Researchers in May began dunking bales of barley hay into eight ponds in Maryland’s Carroll County to test its effect on algae. The use of barley to control algae is commonplace in Britain, but few scientists here have studied barley and algae growth. Some think the bales act like giant tea bags, releasing compounds that discourage algae growth. Others theorize that the barley encourages the growth of microorganisms that eat algae. The question is significant because barley could be a cheap, safe alternative to the chemicals often used to control algae blooms, said University of Maryland researcher Bryan Butler.