Maryland gained forefront status in the Bay watershed on May 7 with the signing into law of Senate Bill 549-the Sustainable Forestry Act of 2009-sponsored by Sen. Roy Dyson.

This act is designed to realize one goal-the retention of privately owned forest lands within Maryland consistent with and responsive to the 2007 Forestry Conservation Initiative signed by the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council in December 2007.

In short, the cure for the ills plaguing our coveted Chesapeake Bay can be found in our trees. Maryland clearly recognizes this with its enactment of the Sustainable Forestry Act. It is a historic act that should serve as a model not only within the Bay watershed, but from a national perspective as well.

As noted by Maryland's state forester, Steve Koehn, on Feb. 24 before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee: "The eyes of the nation's forest community are focused on Maryland. What you [as lawmakers] do on this bill will resonate throughout the country...hopefully, you will pass the bill." With less than six hours remaining in the 2009 session, the amended Senate bill cleared the House of Delegates with no changes.

A key argument for moving the bill emanated from the Chesapeake Bay Council's Directive No. 06-1, "Protecting the Forests of the Chesapeake Watershed," on Sept. 22, 2006 which reads:

"Retaining and expanding forests in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is critical to our success in restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Forests are the most beneficial land use for protecting water quality, due to their ability to capture, filter and retain water, as well as absorb pollution from the air...a reduction in forest area leads to a disproportionate increase in nitrogen loads to our waterways."

On Dec. 5, 2007, the Chesapeake Bay Council issued a "Call to Action" by building on its earlier decision to underscore the importance of promoting sustainable forestry within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, stating:

"Chesapeake forests prevent millions of pounds of nitrogen and other pollutants from reaching the Bay each year. While trends vary locally, the watershed has lost 100 acres of forest land per day since the mid-1980s. Every acre of forest converted to other uses means more nutrients entering the Bay, making it more difficult to mitigate development impacts and resulting in additional loss and fragmentation of forest habitat. If this forest loss continues, nitrogen loads alone will increase by 1,300 pounds per day to the Bay. As citizen and governmental agencies work to implement actions to reduce the flow of nutrients and sediment from agriculture, developed lands, and watershed treatment plants, their overall success is threatened by the loss of our watershed's greatest natural filter: its forests. In fact, the public will spend billions of dollars on technological replacements for the services that forests provide naturally for free-such as drinking water filtration, flood control, storm water management, energy and greenhouse gas and air pollution control.

"Retaining and expanding forests across the watershed is a cost-effective strategy for reducing pollution now and maintaining caps on nutrients in the future.

"An investment in sustainable forestry will not only help to address water quality issues but other challenges such as climate change, sprawl and energy independence.

"Therefore, it is our intent to maximize the area of forest by discouraging the conversion of the most valuable forests and giving priority to forests in land conservation programs. Further, we recognize the importance of working forests and will ensure that public policies and market-based incentives help families retain and manage these forests sustainably."

Without a healthy, sustainable forest system, it is an indisputable fact that the Chesapeake will never heal as envisioned by the 1998 Water Quality Improvement Act, the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, the 2007 Forest Conservation Initiative, Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund and the Governor's Climate Change Commission.

Our forests are vanishing because of development pressures attendant to population growth and poorly planned sprawl development. And, because 76 percent of our forests are owned by private landowners, the promotion of sustainable forestry through responsive public policy must motivate and educate these individuals about the importance of and implications affiliated with sound land-use decision making.

So, what does the Sustainable Forestry Act of 2009 actually accomplish?

First, it recognizes the environmental and economic importance of sustainable forestry through a declaration of policy, among other things, to the Bay and rural Maryland consistent with and responsive to the 1998 Water Quality Improvement Act, Chesapeake 2000 agreement, the 2007 Forest Conservation Initiative, and the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays 2010 Trust Fund.

Second, it promotes outreach to forest landowners to develop and implement forest stewardship plans, which set forth land use objectives consistent with the will of the landowner-through the Forest Conservancy District Boards [one in each county]. At present, only one in four forest landowners has adopted such a land use guiding blueprint.

Third, it promotes renewable energy development from woody biomass via the existing 10 percent "green" power goal for the executive branch; long-term power purchase agreements as envisioned by the governor per his remarks made at the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention in Ocean City; and future carbon credit, carbon sequestration and cellulosic ethanol development from a policy-related perspective.

Fourth, it promotes sustainable forestry from a local zoning perspective by encouraging local governments-not mandating local governments-to be more pro-forestry conscious in their decision-making.

Fifth, it addresses the importance of an agro-forestry alliance consistent with and responsive to the findings and recommendations of the Incentives for Agriculture Task Force (Chapter 289 of the Acts of 2006) via its October 2007 Final Report to the Governor and the General Assembly.

In the final analysis, it is imperative that Maryland retain its coveted forests.

This is made especially difficult because 76 percent of Maryland's 2.4 million acres of forested lands are owned by private, non-industrial landowners who can exercise their private property rights to dispose of or manage such lands at will.

Development pressure is real. Compounding this is the realization of Maryland's prevailing fiscal condition, meaning, millions of additional dollars are not available to help conserve the state's vanishing forests through desperately needed financial incentives.

In short, Maryland's forests are truly at risk and the Sustainable Forestry Act of 2009 will help to mitigate this threat through creative strategies today that will produce measurable dividends to the state's "green infrastructure" tomorrow.

Trees are the answer.