I spent a day recently with some forestry experts and learned a lot about what's wrong with the way we are growing as a region here in the Chesapeake. Not that they said so directly - foresters as a group are not prone to be critical. It was more the implications of what they were lamenting, about how our remaining forests are being fragmented - cut into smaller and smaller pieces by the development patterns we continue to indulge on our landscape.
The fragmentation issue was the focus of a series of roundtables sponsored by the Bay Program's Forestry Work Group and the Society of American Foresters. Aside from the benefits they provide for wood products, recreation and wildlife, forests are important to the restoration of the Chesapeake because of the role they play in trapping nutrients, the Bay's major pollutants.
While forests still cover nearly 60 percent of the lands draining into the Bay, they deliver only 14 percent of the nitrogen and an amazing 3 percent of the phosphorus.
In a way, our forests represent a huge natural pollution treatment system. They provide, by far, the most beneficial absorption capacity of any land use in the watershed, which has led to the initiatives taken by the Chesapeake Bay Program in recent years to protect and restore riparian forest buffers and to advocate forest preservation in general.
From the European settlement through the Civil War, forest cover in the Chesapeake watershed was reduced by conversion to farmland; from 1865 until 1960, however, there was actually a net increase in forests, with the harvest in the upper tracts of the watershed more than offset by the abandonment of farmland. Since 1960, the trend has been downward once again, this time spurred by the spread of suburban development.
This pattern of land consumption has reduced farmland as well as forests, but the loss of the forests has had a much greater effect on the rivers and the Bay.
The extent of the phenomenon can be expressed in many ways - the population shifts from cities to suburbs, the increase in average lot size in new subdivisions, and the fact that vehicle miles traveled has gone up at a rate three to four times the population increase in the watershed. The long-term recovery of the Chesapeake is not sustainable if these trends continue.
So what can be done? The forestry group wrestled with the issue and came up with five key strategies to pursue. None of them is a "silver bullet," and they all have their pitfalls.
First, we need to do a better job of identifying the conditions, trends and impacts for the public, so we can build both an awareness of what is happening to the landscape and of the ability of the land to absorb and process the nutrients, which otherwise will get to the rivers and the Bay and do their damage.
This is a huge education job, and it runs up against what appear to be real preferences for a lifestyle of affluence that seeks out, embraces and consumes the very resource that we seek to protect.
Second, there need to be better controls on public infrastructure - the roads and schools and other services that provide the access and support for the most consumptive development patterns. This is also easier said than done.
Gov. Parris Glendening of Maryland has made this a centerpiece of his "Smart Growth" initiative, and the state will attempt to focus these kinds of public investment in areas appropriate for development and infill. Yet, smart growth is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, and even if the governor, himself, wanted to be involved in all the public decisions about services, developers and individuals can still leap-frog into the countryside and pressure for the services to follow. We have much to learn from how this will work out.
Third, we can do a better job of informing the public of the true costs of different patterns of development. There are numerous studies that have shown the additional costs to taxpayers of sprawl over clustering houses - I myself was involved in the grandaddy of them: The Costs of Sprawl, published by the Council of Environmental Quality in 1972.
But the problem is that, despite the consistent findings of study after study, the people already located in the community resist clustered development as a threat to their property values, prefer private to public open space and press their local officials to assure that future development is at least at current densities, and preferably on even larger lots.
Fourth, the group called for flexible programs of conservation easements and programs to make landowners aware of the tax and other benefits available. The Piedmont Environmental Council has produced an excellent document, Tax Advantages of Conservation Easement Donation, by Tim Lindstrom, which lays out all of the benefits to landowners. But, localities have been reticent about pressing for solutions that potentially reduce local tax revenue, even when they reduce even more the need for public investments in future series.
Finally, we identified the establishment of urban growth boundaries as part of the solution, as well. These seek to restrict the development beyond a pre-established area, and focus new development close to existing communities.
There has been a lot of press recently about pressure on Portland to expand its urban growth boundary under Oregon law, and much of the talk has been over how and when to break it down. But in all the ruckus, what has been lost is the fact that the boundary has prevented sprawl for decades, not only from Portland, but from every other urban area in the state, and the Oregon landscape has been essentially preserved. The same has been true in Vermont and other places where such boundaries have been tried.
There are more lessons to learn even farther afield. The new Labour Party government under Tony Blair in Great Britain is struggling with many of the same issues.
It is interesting that even in a country where preservation of the landscape is virtually a national religion, and where the bible is the incredibly powerful Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, there is a feeling that things are not working as well as they could.
The government has promised a white paper on needed changes in transport policy this spring, and a green (consultant) paper by Easter on housing and planning, with the focus on what to do about pressures on greenbelts around British cities. Both should be fascinating reads for those interested in what we can learn from their 50 years of experience with protecting the countryside.
Meanwhile, if you want to get a good overview of how land use planning and land law have gotten to where they are today in our region, a recommended reading is a recent review article by Lee Epstein, director of Lands Programs for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It is titled, "Where Yards are Wide: Have Land Use Planning and Law Gone Astray?" and it appears in the William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, Volume 21:345, 1997. Epstein suggests that after 70 years, it is time to revamp traditional zoning and approaches to meet the realities of today's markets, the values they represent and the reality of their impacts on the landscape.
And, of course, there is that ultimate source of inspiration, Dr. Suess, who would remind us all that we need to get back to basics and start by "speaking for the trees."