Every acre of forest in the Chesapeake Bay region saves tax dollars and prevents pollution. But the decision to keep land in forests is never easy.
Kirk Rodgers, who manages thousands of acres of family forest in Maryland, says that pressure to sell forest land is intense-his family is currently selling several Eastern Shore properties for economic reasons.
"The issues we're facing are shared by a wide spectrum of forest landowners," Rodgers said. "I'm pessimistic about the ability of forest landowners to hold out in the face of development pressures when coupled with very little government incentive to keep forests as forests."
He's not alone. The Bay Program estimates that the region loses about 100 acres of forest a day, which increases nutrient pollution to the Bay. Acre for acre, forests produce less nutrient runoff than other land uses because their roots and leaves absorb nitrogen moving through the ground and air.
Forests cover about 58 percent, or 24 million acres of the Bay watershed. Only about a quarter of that land-6 million acres-is protected through conservation easements or owned by state or federal agencies. Yet if the rate of forest loss continues, the Bay Program predicts that nitrogen loads to the Chesapeake will increase by 1,300 pounds per day.
Until recently, the Bay Program offered no specific goals for the broad protection of forestland in the watershed.
In December, the Chesapeake Executive Council filled that gap by announcing a regional goal to permanently protect at least 695,000 additional acres of forests by 2020. It aims to protect 266,400 of those acres by 2012.
The state-specific goals include 15,000 additional acres in Delaware; 250,000 acres in Maryland; 15,000 in New York; 100,000 in Pennsylvania; and 315,000 in Virginia.
Partnered with these goals was a promise to develop more policies that support the preservation of forests and boost funding for conservation programs.
"Consideration of our forests needs to be a mainstream part of national, state and local governments' environmental and economic planning," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, chair of the Executive Council.
In addition to reducing nutrient pollution, forests provide other benefits, such as controlling flooding and erosion, and reducing air pollutants that contribute to global warming and threaten human health. Forests are also valued for wildlife, recreation and jobs. The Bay Program reports that regional forests contribute $24 billion worth of ecological services and $22 billion to the economy.
Despite their multiple benefits, the Bay Program had focused past efforts on streamside forest buffers, which are critical for reducing water pollution. Since 1996, the Bay Program has met and expanded its related restoration goals. But the effort directed most resources to shoreline locations and left the broad future of Chesapeake forests undefined.
"We really needed this new goal to expand our attention to upland forests and to say, along with restoring forests, we need to keep what we have. Let's not lose more ground toward polluting the Bay," said Sally Claggett of the U.S. Forest Service.
"Every acre of forest lost means more pollution in our water or in the air," she said. "If trees can't provide their services, then we'll need more engineered systems to step in and deal with our water quality and air quality problems."
Conservation efforts will target areas that protect high-quality water, such as headwater forests, forested wetlands and streamside forests.
Protection can come through a range of national, state or local programs offered by government agencies or private land trusts. Bay Program partners will work with local organizations to create or expand local funds that support these programs and provide state matching grants when possible.
Claggett hopes the goal will also drive changes in state and local policies that support working forests and encourage long-term conservation.
"Protecting 695,000 acres is just one piece of this goal," Claggett said. "It's also about getting better policies in place. That's where there's so much potential."
Rodgers agrees. "We pay a lot of attention to farmers and very little attention to forest owners, in part because there are so many of us. Some people with fewer acres don't even think of their land as forest. They can be very tempted by developers, not from lack of interest but from lack of incentives."
As a large forest landowner, Rodgers has more options. If the family sells land for development, they usually buy other forestland to replace it.
"But our situation is different from many forest landowners," Rodgers said. "If a small landowner sells, he gets out of the business-if he was in it to begin with. It's easy pickings for a developer."