The Bay states and the federal government may need to spend about $1.65 billion over the next decade to meet the Bay Program goal of permanently preserving one-fifth of the watershed as open space.
But with interest in land conservation growing at both the state and federal levels, odds are good that the region will be able to meet the objective, according to a preliminary analysis prepared by the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization that works to protect land nationwide.
“That is very achievable, given your history,” Debi Osborne, director of the Trust’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office, told the Chesapeake Bay Commission at its November meeting. “But to accomplish this, you need more money.”
The commission, an advisory panel that represents the legislatures of the three Bay states, had requested the analysis to help determine how much additional land must be protected, what amount of money is needed and what kinds of policies will help to reach the goal.
Protecting land from development, and thereby reducing runoff from roads and other solid surfaces, is considered an important part of protecting the Bay. As part of a series of goals aimed at controlling development, the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement called for permanently preserving 20 percent of the watershed from development by 2010.
“I think it’s a real exciting moment for the region,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the commission. “We know scientifically, we know politically and we know intuitively that preserving lands is important for saving the Bay and saving the region.”
The presentation at the commission meeting offered the first real estimate of the job ahead.
In the Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and District of Columbia portion of the Bay watershed, there are 38.5 million acres. Twenty percent of that number is about 7.7 million acres.
How much of that 7.7 million acres is presently preserved either through public ownership or private conservation easements that prevent development isn’t clear, and exact figures probably won’t be available until early next year.
Officials working out the details have concluded that areas protected only by regulation, such as wetlands, Maryland’s Critical Areas and Virginia’s Resource Protection Areas, cannot be included because they may be developed under some circumstances. “Being regulated, they are somewhat vulnerable to interpretation and change over time,” Swanson said.
But other points remain unclear. For example, officials have not agreed whether large military holdings are “permanently protected.” Military bases in the watershed control hundreds of thousands of acres, much of which is open space used for hunting and other purposes. But federal law requires that military land remain available to a wide range of national security activities — from firing ranges, to tank testing grounds to military housing and stores — or risk being declared surplus and disposed of by the government.
With such details remaining to be worked out, preliminary estimates put the shortfall somewhere between 800,000 and 1.2 million acres.
In its preliminary financial estimate, the Trust for Public Land assumed 1 million additional acres must be protected.
In the past eight years, the TPL analysis found that about 400,000 acres had been protected in the watershed. About 28.5 percent of that was protected by private groups, such as land trusts and conservancies. The rest was protected through state and federal programs.
Projecting that forward, the TPL estimated that 285,000 acres would be preserved by private efforts in the next decade, leaving 715,000 acres to be protected by government.
The average cost of protecting land within the watershed, either through easements, acquisition or other means, has been $2,315 an acre, according to the TPL. That means $1.65 billion would be needed between now and 2010 to acquire or preserve 715,000 acres.
From 1992–99, the states and the federal government spent nearly $660 million in land preservation and protection. That included about $190 million in Pennsylvania, $54 million in Virginia, and $410 million in Maryland.
If that level of financial support continues over the next decade, it would protect about 500,000 acres, according to the TPL. That leaves a shortfall of 215,000 acres which, using the $2,315 per acre figure, would require an additional $500 million in spending beyond recent levels.
But that is not an insurmountable challenge, according to the TPL. Smaller areas have goals that rival the Bay Program objective. For example, both the states of New Jersey and North Carolina have 1 million-acre land conservation goals.
“Around the country, a huge amount of money is being committed by states and municipalities for land conservation,” said Andy McLeod, state government finance director for the TPL.
Also, some additional federal funding is expected, thanks to a scaled-back version of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act approved by Congress this year [See related story on this page.]. It will spend nearly $12 billion nationwide — mostly in money to states — over the next six years on conservation programs, many of which are aimed at land acquisition or protection.
In addition, the Bay region could put together a “bold” land protection strategy and present it to Congress in the hope of getting additional financial support, McLeod suggested.
Just this fall, Congress approved a $7.8 billion, 20-year land acquisition and restoration program for the Florida Everglades. Similar proposals are being put together for other regions of the country, such as the northern forests of New England.
Swanson said such a strategy should be pursued in the Bay region. “We need to put together a powerful coalition of people that will pursue Congressional support for land conservation,” she said.
Many members of the commission seemed encouraged about the prospects for meeting the goal. “There are some challenges here, but it is doable,” said Rep. Noah Wenger, a Pennsylvania representative on the commission who has pushed land conservation measures in the state. “I think we have a very realistic goal here.”
So far, the Bay Program has not launched any comprehensive strategy as to what types of land should be targeted for protection within the watershed, although officials plan to begin such a discussion early next year.
The Bay Program is developing a “land assessment” aimed at identifying all “resource lands,” such as farms and forests in the watershed, and evaluating their role in protecting water quality, providing habitat and other services. Some say that assessment may help target land in rapidly developing areas that should be protected.
“We should do our best to target acquisitions,” Swanson said. “Just as we know no two rivers are created equal, we know different lands impact the water very differently.”
The uncertainty that has surrounded the land preservation goal — particularly as it relates to how much land remains to be protected — already has some people worried.
When the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement was signed earlier this year, the Bay Program estimated that about 1.5 million acres need to be protected to achieve the preservation goal — significantly more than the current estimate.
“I’m very concerned about that,” said Lee Epstein, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He said the CBF had done its own “sketchy” estimate which also showed a need for preserving about 1.5 million additional acres. Epstein said the process for determining what is being counted as preserved should be more open to public scrutiny.
He questioned counting any large chunk of military land toward the goal, noting that the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia has opened up its land for a variety of development, including training facilities for the FBI. “I don’t think it’s safe to say any of it is permanently protected,” he said.
But, Swanson said, the land preservation goal is still shaping up to be a major endeavor for the region. “As long as that goal is close to 1 million acres or higher,” she said, “we have a challenge on our hands and we need to rally.”