Every day, the Chesapeake Bay watershed loses a bit more forest and, just as predictably, the amount of runoff reaching local streams increases, bird and wildlife habitat decreases, and the potential to absorb atmospheric carbon is reduced.

Forests covered about 95 percent of the Bay watershed when English settlers arrived in the early 1600s, but just 55 percent is forested today and that percentage continues to decline. That has ramifications for the Bay's health. Forests are highly effective at soaking up nutrients, so when they are lost to development or agriculture, more nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment will make its way to local streams and, ultimately, the Bay.

"Forests produce the cleanest water of any land use, so the effects of forest loss ripple downstream and into the Bay, where the greater nutrient loads and higher temperatures generate conditions that threaten the Bay's abundant life," states a new Chesapeake Forest Restoration Strategy developed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The strategy doesn't set specific reforestation goals. Instead, it identifies activities with the greatest opportunity to incorporate tree planting and forest restoration to help achieve other Bay goals established by either the state-federal Bay Program partnership or the federal Chesapeake restoration strategy developed in response to President Obama's Chesapeake Bay Executive Order.

The activities, identified by a team of 60 representatives from agencies and nongovernmental organizations, were those most likely to have local support, the availability of existing programs to help promote them, and an ability to mesh with other restoration goals.

"With a lot of these priority areas, there is energy, there is opportunity, and that is why we picked them,"

said Sally Claggett, the Chesapeake Bay coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service.

According to the report, the greatest restoration opportunities include:

  • Fish & Wildlife Habitat: The strategy calls for protecting large tracts of intact, unfragmented forests and connecting them with forested corridors along rivers and ridge lines that provide habitat pathways for wildlife. It also calls for targeting the planting of streamside forest buffers, which can help absorb runoff before it reaches streams, in areas where they will also provide the greatest habitat benefits for brook trout and other species.
  • Mine Lands: The Bay watershed has more than 25,000 acres of abandoned mine lands that have the potential to be rehabilitated and reforested. The report noted that initiatives in the Appalachians have had a successful track record in bringing together agencies and nongovernmental organizations to reforest large tracts of abandoned mine lands, actions that could be replicated in the Bay watershed.
  • Agroforestry: The strategy also calls for promoting "agroforestry" initiatives. Agroforestry incorporates tree planting in agricultural settings. The idea is to strategically use trees in ways that benefit farmers and the environment. For instance, windbreaks can reduce the impact of wind and snow on fields; incorporating trees on marginal pasture land can provide shelter for livestock while increasing biodiversity and protecting water quality; other kinds of trees can boost income by producing fruits and nuts or providing pollinator habitat.
  • Urban & Community Forests: The Bay Program committed to having at least 120 communities develop urban tree expansion goals by 2020, and the forest strategy said that goal was likely to be exceeded. Trees in urban areas provide multiple benefits, such as reducing stormwater runoff and pollution while providing wildlife habitat and energy savings. Besides planting new trees in cities, the report said there are opportunities in suburban areas to encourage landowners to replace lawns with trees.
  • Contaminated Land: The report said the dozens of contaminated, or formerly contaminated, sites in the watershed could be targeted for tree planting. Such plantings could remediate contamination at the sites; reduce water pollution as many are near rivers and streams; and improve the environment for nearby neighborhoods. In places such as Baltimore, tree and marsh plantings have transformed once-contaminated sites to community amenities.

While those priority areas present opportunities, Claggett said the strategy was unlikely to fully offset forest loss in the watershed, which the report estimates at 100 acres a day, driven primarily by development and agriculture.

If all mine lands were reforested — and the report noted that some of those lands would not be suitable for forest — it would not fully offset the amount of forests lost in the watershed in a single year.

Claggett said she hopes that the strategy brings attention to the areas of opportunity it identified, as well as a renewed focus on actions such as planting forest stream buffers — a longstanding Bay Program priority that has lost momentum in recent years.

Although states in the watershed have planted 7,700 miles of forest stream buffers since 1996, the rate has fallen dramatically in recent years. Just 284 miles were planted in 2012 — far below the 900-mile-a-year goal adopted by the Bay Program in 2007.

"This was an important first step," Claggett said of the strategy. "But we also want to expand upon it."

To hold the line, and eventually reverse, the trend in forest loss, Claggett said the restoration strategy needed to go hand-in-hand with a strategy to conserve existing forests — which is under development.

The report cautioned that restoring forests is a long-term proposition "measured in decades not months" that would require support from grass roots organizations, individuals and government agencies.

"They say the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago," Claggett said. "The second best time is now."

The report is available on the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order website: executiveorder.chesapeakebay.net.