Small woodlots are a big deal to the Chesapeake’s restoration

Trees clean our air, create habitat, contribute to our economy and provide recreation, such as hiking. (Mike Land)

The commencement of spring is always a significant moment in our Chesapeake forests. Buds swell, ready to break dormancy and add the first of the year’s growth to the canopy while green hues begin to emerge from the forest floor.

It is also significant for forest enthusiasts who, themselves, are breaking from the wintertime’s stupor.

For me, spring always provokes an eagerness to get out into the woods just to be there.

It is no wonder that there are many springtime events honoring trees, from maple syrup festivals and the National Cherry Blossom Festival that recognize specific attributes of particular species to Arbor Day, which simply celebrates all of the services that trees and forests provide: cleaning our air, creating habitat, contributing to our economy and providing recreation.

There is little debate as to how crucial forest functions are to the quality of our streams, rivers and the Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Program model estimates that our woodlands prevent more than 180 million pounds of nitrogen from reaching the Chesapeake each year. Around 80 percent of these forests are owned by more than 900,000 private landowners or entities.

Since the 1980s, the region has been losing forest land at a rate of 100 acres per day to development. The forests that remain are more fragmented than ever and face new pressures: invasive plants and pests, diseases, browsing by deer, high-grade harvesting (cut the best and leave the rest) and air pollution. All of these reduce our forests’ ability to provide the vital ecosystem services we depend on to help us restore the Chesapeake.

Although total forest acres are decreasing throughout the Chesapeake region, the number of private forest owners is increasing as land is often divided or sold off in smaller parcels.

As development spreads, the remaining forests tend toward smaller isolated patches. As a result, active forestry efforts in the region have focused on state forests and larger tracts of private woodlands. Yet, an overwhelming majority of forest ownership in the Chesapeake region are in holdings of 10 acres or less.

These small acreage woodlands are a tricky lot in the realm of resource management. Often, these parcels would benefit from silvicultural practices to rejuvenate growth, spur regeneration, enhance wildlife habitat or keep threats in control, but they are often too small to qualify for publicly funded conservation programs that could help reduce the cost of management.

Finding professional help for these parcels is a challenge, too. Small woodlots fall in a gap between the acreage serviced by traditional foresters and those of the more suburban arborist or landscaper.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay uses the Woods in Your Backyard program as a tool for reaching out to owners of these 2- to 10-acre parcels and helping them to manage their woodlot and enhance their other natural areas.

The program is based on a guidance manual of the same name that was first developed in 2006 by extension natural resource specialists at University of Maryland, Penn State and Virginia Tech.

The publication provides a thorough overview of land stewardship principles and practices and is written in an easy-to-comprehend language. The book helps landowners develop their own conservation goals for their property and provides them with the information and resources they need to achieve them.

Woods in Your Backyard has been a perfect complement to our education efforts. With our partners, we have been offering workshops throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed from Lackawanna County in northern Pennsylvania to Charles City County in southern Virginia to just over the Blue Ridge Mountains in Berkeley County, WV, and many places in between.

We work closely with excellent natural resource educators in the region and draw in expertise from other professionals like foresters, wildlife biologists, soil conservation specialists, university professors and restoration practitioners who are not readily available to the owners of these small properties.

The program often attracts motivated, do-it-yourself landowners and those who are new to land and resource management. It also attracts people who have owned their land for decades but are interested in innovative techniques to implement.

The Woods in Your Backyard manual has recently been updated to incorporate new natural resource topics, including a section on water and watersheds. This second edition is available for purchase at Plant and Life Science Publishing or by attending one of the many workshop being offered this year.

The University of Maryland Extension is also developing a self-paced, online version of the program that will be available soon.

You can learn about future workshops by visiting the Events page of the Alliance’s Forests for the Bay website.

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

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