Foresters worry the trend threatens remaining woodlands and the Chesapeake Bay

A NEW U.S. Forest Service study shows that the Chesapeake Bay watershed lost 4.5 percent of its forest cover during a 14-year period ending in 1992 as woodlands were cleared at a rate of more than 100 acres a day.

That is a reverse from a long trend of forest recovery which lasted from the early part of this century -- when only 30 percent to 40 percent of the 64,000-square-mile watershed was forested -- to about 1970 when the amount of wooded land grew to more than 60 percent.

"It's not a crisis, but it is time for a wake-up call," said Al Todd, the Forest Service's liaison to the Chesapeake Bay Program. "We need to look carefully at slowing our rate of loss."

If the trend continues, as expected, it will challenge state and local governments to find ways to slow forest losses to maintain both the environmental and economic benefits of woodlands. In addition, the foresters say, it points to the need to develop strategies that promote such things as streamside forests which can, to some extent, help minimize the ecological impact of large forest losses.

The loss of forest lands to other uses is a Bay concern because, acre for acre, forests contribute less nutrient and sediment runoff than any land use except wetlands. Simply put, foresters say, the loss of woodlands translates to increased runoff pollution to the Bay and its tributaries.

While it has been thought for some time that forests in the watershed were declining, the soon-to-be-published report by the Forest Service's Northeastern Area Office is the most comprehensive analysis of the loss to date.

It draws on estimates from the Bay Program's land use database, Forest Service statistics, inventories by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service and, in some cases, county-level records. While some of the inventories varied in their estimates, the overall conclusions were similar.

"We feel comfortable that when you have several inventories all showing a trend in one direction, that trend is probably true," Todd said.

During the 14 years from 1978 to 1992, the amount of forest-covered land in the watershed fell by 1.5 million acres -- from more than 60 percent of the watershed's land use to 58.6 percent, according to Bay Program data used in the study. Before European settlement, more than 95 percent of the watershed is thought to have been forested.

The analysis found that forests in the Bay watershed were losing ground in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. Forest levels were static in the Pennsylvania and West Virginia portions of the watershed, and increasing somewhat in New York.

Beyond the numbers, the pattern of losses raises several concerns, the foresters say.

The greatest rate of loss is generally occurring in areas that are relatively close to the Bay, while the situation is more stable farther up the watershed. That is significant because pollutants entering rivers and streams close to the Bay have a greater impact on its water quality. Pollutants that enter waterways farther upstream, by contrast, have a greater opportunity to be filtered or settle out of the water before reaching the Chesapeake.

While the amount of forest cover in Pennsylvania remained static during the study period, the lower Susquehanna --the closest area to the Bay -- continued to lose forests. Three counties in that region, York Lancaster and Adams, had an 11.6 percent decline during the study period. Only 22.6 percent of that area remains forested. The rapidly developing Harrisburg area lost 6.2 percent of its forest during the same time.

Losses have also been rapid in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. And in the rapidly developing northern Virginia counties outside Washington, forest losses occurred at a rate three to four times faster than the rest of the state.

While almost the entire watershed was logged in the past, foresters say this loss is more troubling. In previous eras, logged areas either returned to woodlands or became farmland. Even as farmland, noted Richard Cooksey, a Forest Service resource planner, those areas remained "potential forest lands and part of a working landscape versus permanently developed conditions.' In fact, some of those former croplands have converted to forest, accounting for Pennsylvanias static forest condition in the face of losses in the lower Susquehanna.

But recent conversions have been from forest to development: homes, buildings, roads and parking lots. 'The losses we're experiencing now are permanent conversions," Todd said. "They're difficult to bring back."

And the outlook, the foresters say, is disturbing. Not only is the watershed's population growing, the rate of land conversion is growing even faster -- increasing at 180 percent of the population rate. To meet a growing demand, an estimated 1.7 million new housing units will be needed between 1990 and 2020 which would -- at recent development rates -- consume another 636,000 acres, according to the study.

"Growth is going to occur and should occur; we need places to live and work," Cooksey said. "But it's the way we grow that is important to consider."

Development not only reduces the amount of forests, but can threaten the viability of those that remain. When forest tracts are "fragmented" by development, it can make them more susceptible to disease, pollution and other stresses that may affect forest health.

Perhaps even more serious, it threatens the economic viability of those lands for forest products such as timbering one of the major economic incentives to keep land in forest. As suburbs spread into rural areas, it can spark an increase in land values and tax rates on property being managed for forest products, creating an incentive to sell those tracts for development.

In addition, people moving into those areas often consider timber harvests an eyesore, sometimes sparking local restrictions. Its a public viewpoint problem, said Mike Foreman, of the Virginia Department of Forestry. People dont want to see the forest across from them cut.

His department has developed a map showing projected population densities throughout the state in the future. From that, forest officials have concluded that logging operations will be difficult if not impossible in many portions of Virginia in coming decades.

State and federal governments manage millions of acres of forest land in the watershed, mostly in the upstream areas of Pennsylvania and Virginia. But about 90 percent of the forest land in the Bay region is privately owned.

As the economic incentive for maintaining forests in urbanizing areas is diminished, programs will be needed to protect those that remain.

Maryland, with only 43 percent of its land still covered by forest, has been confronting this problem. Concern over forest loss spurred passage of the Forest Conservation Act, which seeks to limit the impact of forest clearing for residential and commercial development by requiring developers to show that they have made reasonable efforts to protect forests. In some cases, replanting is required.

But, acknowledged Eric Schwaab, director of the state Forest Service, the law is not a one-for-one situation. So even with the Forest Conservation Law we need other strategies if we are even to maintain what we have, which of course is significantly less than what the Maryland portion of the Bay watershed once had.

A number of programs exist that can provide tax relief and other incentives to people who want to keep their land in forest. Many of those programs, though, are primarily aimed at agricultural lands.

And while several programs both government and private exist to buy development rights for farmland in the path of sprawling subdivisions and business complexes, few similar land trusts are aimed at buying development rights for forests.

Forest land is significant to us, aesthetically, culturally and environmentally, Schwaab said, so perhaps we can begin to generate more interest in strategies to protect forest land through easements as has been done so successfully with agricultural land preservation programs.

Right now, the main program that does that, the U.S. Forest Services Legacy Program, is threatened with a funding cutoff by Congress. Funding for the federal Stewardship Incentive Program, which is the primary source of cost-share money for many forest incentive programs, is also in jeopardy.

With few economic incentives, foresters say they will have to rely primarily on providing technical assistance to landowners who want help to keep their property in forests, whether for economic, wildlife, water quality or aesthetic values.

In Pennsylvania, for example, the state Bureau of Forestry has been providing technical assistance to groups in Lancaster and Cumberland counties to reforest areas along rivers and streams. While we may still lose some of the forest cover, some of the most critical forest cover will be maintained, said David Gregg, of the Bureau of Forestry. But, he added, We need to recognize that forestry agencies, at least ours, are not geared up to providing a whole lot more services than we currently are.

Indeed, many foresters say, the battle to protect wooded areas in rapidly developing areas will not rest so much with traditional forest management agencies as with local governments. Those entities, handling land use issues, will need to develop policies that preserve forests not only for aesthetics, but for their ecological benefits, such as water filtering. We need to work to develop a stewardship ethic across-the-board at the local level, Foreman said.

To help with that, Todd and Cooksey are working with the Bay Programs Local Government Advisory Committee and the programs Land, Growth and Stewardship Subcommittee to identify successful and innovative local government initiatives to retain forest lands. They hope to convey that information to other local governments that may need models to develop their own ordinances, policies and incentive-based programs.

We need to pay attention not only to the gray infrastructure, but to the green infrastructure that we leave behind. Todd said. We need it now; were going to need it even more in the future.

For years, Todd and Cooksey said, planners have worried about providing an adequate infrastructure roads, sewers and utilities to provide for development needs. In the future, he said, they will increasingly need to think about the green infrastructure where, and how many trees they leave behind to help absorb runoff, filter pollution and provide other environmental needs for society.

Ultimately, the foresters hope to integrate forest planning into the long-term visions of local communities, so the concept will become incorporated in routine practices such as planning, zoning and stormwater management.

In the meantime, faced with the prospect of continued forest loss into the future, the Bay Program is encouraging the restoration of forests along streams. Recent research has shown that forested buffers can be highly effective in filtering runoff from upstream areas before it enters rivers and streams.

As total forest cover declines, were going to need to rely on approaches that mimic the job that has been performed by a larger total forest area, Cooksey said. Forest buffers are a last line of defense to water quality for our rivers and streams.

Last October, the Chesapeake Executive Council the governors of the three Bay states, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the EPA administrator and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission directed the Bay Program to recommend a policy that would promote streamside forest buffers by their fall 1996 meeting.