A proposal to shut down a Maryland prison’s wood-fueled boiler is generating worries about the economic future of private forests that help keep the Chesapeake Bay clean.James Culp cuts some small pines to thin out a stand of pines on his tree farm near Powellville, MD. The thinning allows more light and nutrients to reach the remaining trees to augment their growth. (Dave Harp)

State officials are seeking to extend natural gas service to the Eastern Correctional Institution south of Princess Anne, replacing a more than 30-year-old woodchip-burning system as the prison’s source of heat and electricity.

About one-third of the pulpwood produced on the Eastern Shore finds its way to the prison, home to the state’s only biomass energy plant. If it goes offline, forestry leaders fear it would undercut an industry that is already shrinking in the region and possibly force some landowners to switch their acreage to other uses, such as planting crops or building homes.

“Without markets for these products, it makes these lands more prone to development pressure,” said Beth Hill, executive director of the Maryland Forests Association.

The prison’s proposed conversion is setting off alarm bells among environmentalists, too. The loss of forested land could further erode water quality in the nation’s largest estuary, while six states and the federal government scramble to meet a 2025 cleanup deadline, they said.

“Forests on the landscape are the best for water quality, hands down,” said Craig Highfield, head of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s forestry program. “In essence, these private foresters are doing a public good.”

Trees and shrubs filter up to 65 percent of nitrogen and 45 percent of phosphorus from stormwater as it runs toward streams and the Chesapeake Bay, where it can spawn harmful algal blooms, studies show. Their roots also stabilize stream banks, preventing the leaching of sediment that can impede the growth of aquatic grass.

But the amount of forested land has plummeted in the Bay watershed from 95 percent of land cover in the 1600s to 55 percent today. And nearly 80 percent of what remains is in private hands. During the 1990s and early 2000s, mid-Atlantic forests were lost to development at a rate of 100 acres per day, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Forests are considered so important they were written into the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the watershed’s states. The agreement reaffirmed an earlier goal of restoring 900 miles of stream-adjacent forests per year.

The Eastern Correctional Institution, commonly called by its acronym ECI, houses about 2,840 inmates in a medium-security complex and 560 others in a minimum-security annex. It receives all of its heating and about 85 percent of its electricity from a boiler that consumes about 50,000 tons of wood chips per year, according to state estimates.

The facility’s unusual energy arrangement is the result of a mixture of politics and economic development, said Bill Miles, the lobbyist for the Association for Forest Industries. In the early 1980s, when backers of ECI’s construction were trying to win support among state lawmakers, Miles was the chief of staff on the Maryland Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee. He recalled that the installation of a wood-based boiler was dangled as a potential economic windfall for Somerset County, historically one of the state’s poorest counties.

“The idea was to take a resource that’s abundant and available and convert it into energy for that prison down there,” Miles said.

Today, the aging system is operating below its advertised efficiency and requires fuel oil for starting up and “support,” according to state records. “It’s a dinosaur, but it’s still functioning,” Miles said.

As officials move toward a possible new energy source for the state-owned prison, economic gain is once again a driving theme.

Forestry leaders worry that shuttering Eastern Correctional Institution’s wood-based energy system could lead to more clear-cutting like this in Talbot County, MD. (Dave Harp)Somerset is one of three counties in Maryland where there are no natural gas distribution lines. Local boosters hope that the move opens the door to future natural gas expansion to the town’s industrial park, which has struggled to lure employers, in part because of its lack of pipeline access.

“Companies coming in ask, ‘What do you have to offer?’” said Dennis Williams, a town commissioner and member of the Somerset County Economic Development Commission. “Everyone wants to have the natural gas.”

Last August, the Maryland Environmental Service, a self-supporting state agency, began asking natural gas suppliers to submit construction bids on a pipeline to ECI and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which is in Princess Anne, Somerset’s county seat. The gas would have to be flowing by 2022, according to bid documents.

Craig Renner, an MES spokesman, said he couldn’t comment on the proposal while the bidding process is ongoing. Bill Robinson, a spokesman for the university, supplied a brief statement, saying the parties are “evaluating the best path forward in providing natural gas to the lower Eastern Shore.”

The MES is now in talks with the project’s lone bidder: Chesapeake Utilities. The publicly traded corporation, based in Dover, DE, is the parent company of Eastern Shore Natural Gas, which operates a nearly 500-mile network of pipelines in southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Last September, the company filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission seeking approval for a $37 million project that would create four pipeline segments totaling nearly 20 miles. One of those segments, if green-lighted by FERC and other regulators, would extend a pipeline for more than 6 miles south from Salisbury in Wicomico County to a point just below Somerset’s northern boundary. FERC gave the project a positive environmental assessment in the spring, setting the stage for final approval later this year.

A Chesapeake Utilities representative offered few details about the ECI proposal in an email to the Bay Journal, but he clarified that additional piping would be needed to carry the gas from the proposed pipeline’s terminus near the county line to the college and ECI. “Our goal is to continue to find ways to provide the underserved areas on the [Delmarva] Peninsula with low-cost, environmentally beneficial energy solutions,” Justin Mulcahey wrote.

On its own, the prison’s switch to natural gas, if it happens, is unlikely to doom the Eastern Shore’s forestry industry, experts say. But it would take another swipe at a business facing a death by a thousand cuts.

“It is important income for [owners of] private forests in the area,” said Sally Claggett, Chesapeake Bay Program Coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s just like farmers. They need a place to sell, and it’s always a challenge to find a market, especially since the mills keep closing.”

During the 2000s, about half of the state’s sawmills closed amid the global economic downturn. One sawmill in Linkwood, about 50 miles northwest of the prison, was set to go up for auction in April.

The Maryland Forests Association and the Association of Forest Industries said the loss of the wood market at ECI would cost 50 jobs regionally and $7 million in economic activity.

They also claim that forest management would suffer.

Joe Hinson is a consultant for Eastern Shore Forest Products, the Salisbury-based timber company under contract to supply ECI with its pulpwood. The wood sent to ECI is usually harvested during a practice called “thinning,” when loggers remove brush as well as young or damaged trees from a forest. Thinning, he said, makes forests less susceptible to devastating fires and sets the stage for more-valuable trees to receive more sunlight and nutrients, speeding their growth.

Without the ECI market, many Delmarva landowners will no longer have a financial incentive to thin their woodland, Hinson said.

“Basically, the state is spending taxpayer money to entice a gas company to build a pipeline to ECI that destroys local jobs and is detrimental to both forest management and the ability of landowners to maintain their land as productive forest,” he added.

Forest industry supporters also question the move’s timing, pointing to a law requiring 25 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020. Maryland lawmakers passed a bill in the closing hours of their spring session this year that increases that standard to 50 percent by 2030. The measure requires Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature to become law. Wood products like those used for the ECI energy plant are designated as “Tier I” renewable sources under the state’s energy credit system.

If the state is determined to replace the old ECI boiler, it should build at least one new wood-fueled system elsewhere to keep the market alive, Miles said.

James and Linda Culp own hundreds of acres of timberland on the lower Eastern Shore. Nearly a decade ago, loggers slashed away about 3,500 tons of hardwood from a forest they own near Pocomoke City in Worcester County. Its destination: ECI’s energy plant.

What was once a stand “as thick as dog hairs” is now a healthy forest where trees have room to breathe, James said. To him, maintaining the wood chip boiler is a win for renewable energy and to the Eastern Shore’s landscape.

“I’m not against natural gas, but natural gas is not a renewable resource,” he said. “Trees are a renewable resource.”