Tim Wheeler’s CREP program interruptions hinder streamside tree planting efforts (April 2019) raises points not frequently recognized. Whereas the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program’s cost-sharing doubtless encourages landowners to put their marginally productive lands into water quality protective uses, the reforestation of riparian or other lands need not depend on government funding.

Reforestation can be done for essentially zero dollars. All that is necessary is to stop tilling and/or mowing the area we want to become forest.

My wife, Margaret, and I have lived in the same house on the same land for more than 50 years.

When we bought this approximately 30-acre place in 1966, the half of it nearest the house was in pathetic corn tillage. “Pathetic” because the Galestown C Sand soil is acidic, droughty and relatively sterile by nature. It was only being cropped to obtain a subsidy. There was one red maple tree in a low place in the front 15 acres, a couple of black walnuts and sassafras and six silver maples in the old house yard.

We stopped the tillage agreement immediately. The winds, the birds and the squirrels took over the planting. We gathered hickory nuts and holly berries from roadside trees and threw them, along with apple cores, randomly. We stuck in the free wildlife management “game food” shrub packets that the state gave away: crabapples, dogwoods, bush honeysuckle and autumn olive.

In the first spring, the land produced broom sedge, horse weed, camphor weed, trumpet vine, partridge pea, Japanese honeysuckle and sandburs. Those herbaceous volunteers trapped moist air and raised the humidity down close to the soil. Box turtles found shelter under them in the heat of the summer.

In three to four years, seedling loblolly and Virginia pines appeared, blown in by northwest winds from along that edge of the old fields. Some are now 18 inches in butt diameter.

Sassafras and wild cherry seeded out from the margins, moved by birds that ate those fruits. An occasional tulip poplar appeared, and an osage orange from we know not where. The single old red maple in the low place produced thousands of offspring. They have competed for light and moisture: Many have failed; the strongest survive.

Sweet gums, viewed as trash by many people, are now 50–60 feet tall. Their seeds are eaten by at least 18 species of birds and mammals.

Blocking an old ditch has created vernal pools and a sphagnum bog with skunk cabbage, cinnamon and royal fern, and Virginia magnolia.

As volunteers increased, as habitat changed, as shading and humidity increased, seedlings of southern red oak, willow oak and American beech appeared. These are small-seeded hardwoods, whose seeds can be moved, lost, planted and forgotten by meadow mice, deer mice and blue jays.

Squirrels plant the black walnuts. Persimmons are started by droppings from foxes, coons and possums. Ground covers that can tolerate shade have appeared: ground pine/running cedar, partridge berry, spotted wintergreen, fly orchis, ebony spleenwort, greenbriar, poison ivy. Most of the ground remains covered year-around with organic debris —
mulch — fallen from the trees.

We have recorded more than 80 species of birds, 20-odd species of mammals, and a similar number of reptile and amphibians species. All of these animals and plants are cycling mechanisms: harvesting the elements, the fertility, the nutrients of the earth through their living, growing, reproducing, defecating and dying. They keep those elements of life here, uphill, up drainage — preventing their excess discharge to the rivers and the Bay.

Most of the precipitation is evapo-transpired back into the atmosphere; much of the rest infiltrates through the very pervious forest floor into groundwater, emerging downhill as cool spring flow to maintain the streams through the dry seasons. There is nearly no surface runoff, and what does is slowed and filtered by the forest’s litter fall. There is zero sediment export.

So we have allowed nature to heal itself. Except for the mostly native plant garden and yard Margaret has created around the house, our now 50-plus-year-old forest — in fact, a young forest — has not cost us any financial outlay.

The rivers and the Bay need this — a lot of it. From something like 95% forested 400 years ago, the watershed is now only about 58% forested, and that, very unequally distributed. Any satellite photo of the Eastern Shore reveals how little forest that very agricultural area still has. The watershed of the Choptank, the seventh largest Bay tributary, is only about 26% forested.

If landowners want free reforestation, they need only quit tilling or mowing the location. Nature will take care of the rest.

If anyone would like to see this firsthand, we are glad to show it to visitors. We are at nmcarter1@verizon.net.

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.