Land Trusts: Partners in Protecting the Chesapeake
Local Land Trusts
Methods for Protecting Land
Chesapeake Bay Program: How Forests Help The Bay
SPOTLIGHT ON FORESTS:
Partners in Protecting the Chesapeake
By Jack Greer
In the next 25 years, at projected rates of development, Marylanders will clear as much land as they have since the first colonists arrived - a potential loss of some 500,000 acres, or 780 square miles of farms and forests. This statistic comes from the Maryland Office of Planning, which estimates that in the last six months alone, the state lost nearly 10,000 acres of farm and forested land.
While these losses will impact the wildlife that depends on these lands, especially the forests, they will also impact water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and make it difficult to sustain the Bay Program's key restoration goal for improving water quality, the slashing of nutrients by 40 percent (from 1985 levels). The reason - forests serve as natural filters of nutrients and sediments, and thus buffer streams and rivers from land runoff. In effect, forests provide a natural stormwater deterrent - the conservation group American Forests has gone so far as to calculate a $1.08 billion loss of such services because of trees cleared in the Baltimore-Washington corridor alone.
In the past quarter century (from 1973 to 1997), according to American Forests, land use changes resulting from development, accounted for a 51-percent decline in average tree cover in areas closest to the Bay, from Norfolk to near the Pennsylvania line.
Richard Cooksey, liaison between the U.S. Forest Service and the multistate Chesapeake Bay Program, says that the figures generated by American Forests may tell a more revealing story than aggregated statewide statistics. For example, while Pennsylvania's statewide forest loss for 1985-1995 appears to be nil, the key watershed counties of Adams, Lancaster and York saw a loss of nearly 5 percent of their forests. Likewise, says Cooksey, while Maryland's forest loss for that same period measures some 4.2 percent, the loss in Baltimore and Harford counties was 8.5 percent - more than double. And while the loss posted for Virginia during that decade was around 4 percent, areas near the Bay lost 7 percent.
Much of this loss is "permanent," Cooksey points out, since those trees were often replaced by houses, roads, parking lots, shopping centers, and other built structures. The question Maryland faces along with most other coastal states is whether it can reconcile the need to develop land to accommodate a growing population with its - and the Bay's - need for forests.
Location, Location, Location
Steve Seagle, a scientist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Appalachian Laboratory, studies the ecological functions of forests. The diminishment of our forests, he says, is compounded by breaking them up into smaller and smaller fragments, fragments too small to function like forests should. As we enter the next century, says Seagle, the question will be not only how many forests we have, but where we have them.
"Fragmentation has clear ecological effects," he says. "It makes forests more vulnerable to invasion by exotic species, and it can change soil temperatures, and the quality of the light at the edge." Fragmentation, he adds, can change "microclimates" that flourish deep inside a forest, where the effects of shade, shelter from wind and other factors create conditions favorable for a number of plants and animals. Those species are often called "interior forest" species - they range from certain insects to well-known neotropical birds, like the colorful scarlet tanager and the ovenbird.
The diminishment of our forests is compounded by breaking them up into smaller and smaller fragments, fragments too small to function like forests should.
Forests also help retain nutrients by taking them up from the soil and from the air. Many people, Seagle says, may think of old growth forests as inefficient in comparison with young, rapidly growing forests, both in their uptake of nutrients and in their economic role of producing "board feet" for harvest. But older forests, he says, do have large standing stocks of carbon and nutrients, both in the trees and in the forest floor. "We don't know as much as we should about the important ecological role of the forest floor," Seagle says, where large amounts of organic material, living and dead, accumulate and recycle over time.
In an effort to keep forests functioning as complete ecosystems, a number of groups and organizations - as well as the State of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Program - have mounted programs to encourage forested buffers along streams and forested corridors that could connect larger tracks of wooded lands. The most visible goal may be the Chesapeake Bay Program's target of planting 2,010 miles of riparian forested buffer by the year 2010.
These programs, says Seagle, will undoubtedly have positive results, especially in terms of slowing runoff at the water's edge and therefore helping to improve water quality. "Even if these buffers are planted in a willy-nilly fashion," he says, "they will still have some positive effects - though they won't fix the entire problem of forest fragmentation."
According to Cooksey, while riparian forest buffers may not act like large segments of forest, they will provide important "corridors" which will improve habitat for the wildlife that live there - and there are estimates that over half of the Bay species spend time in those riparian forests. But "corridors" will not function if they lead to dead ends. How can we ensure that enough contiguous areas can be held together to form such corridors? Are there ways to link riparian buffers with larger forests? Who owns most of that forest - whether by the river's edge or upland - and how can those forest "landlords" help conserve the trees that remain?
A Patchwork Dilemma
From the air, Maryland's bayshore forests look like continuous masses; in the plat books of county seats, though, they are divided into a mosaic of ownership - including many small plots of privately-owned land.
In short, Maryland's forests are like a jigsaw puzzle that doesn't easily fit together.
Of the state's more than 2.7 million acres of forest land, only 10 percent is publicly owned - 90 percent is in private hands according to Gary Allen, chair of the Governor of Maryland's Forestry Task Force. Further, Allen says, more than 65 percent of Maryland's estimated 130,600 private (non-industrial) forest land owners hold parcels of land that are 10 acres or fewer. This means that the fate of the state's woodlands rests primarily with thousands of private landowners who may not even realize that they hold the key to the future of the region's forests.
"This is not only 'fragmentation' but 'parcelization,'" says Cooksey. Fragmentation, he says, refers to the breaking apart of an ecological unit. Parcelization refers to the segmenting of forested land in terms of ownership and management. Land that is "parcelized," he says, is difficult to manage, and vulnerable to development.
According to American Forests - and Seagle agrees - this trend toward fragmented or parcelized forest ownership will persist, as large land holdings continue to break up. "Forested lands have increased in some areas because farmers have retired, or simply aren't actively farming the land," Seagle says. But as farmers sell off land to support their retirement, or as inherited farms are broken up and sold for development, lands that may have been on one deed will now most likely be on many. Says Seagle, "We obviously can't expect retiring farmers alone to preserve our forests."
How can we assure that a "critical mass" of trees will be left to provide the true functions of a forest?
Cooksey notes that the effects of agricultural change on forest lands will differ from one locality to another. For instance, some farming areas on the Eastern Shore are very productive, and forests are not growing back. On the other hand, he does see agricultural trends having a clear effect in some areas, such as the Hudson River valley. This is part of a very widespread trend, says Cooksey. As land changes hands these days it tends to move "out of the hands of people who have historically worked the land - like farmers and foresters - and into the hands of those we might call white collar." These landowners may let the trees grow, but whether trees in a heavily suburbanized area will actually behave like a forest, no one knows.
For those concerned about the health of the Chesapeake watershed, how can we assure that a "critical mass" of trees will be left to provide the true functions of a forest?
The Role of Land Trusts
"I think that land trusts will play a tremendous role in terms of forest conservation," says Cooksey. "And smart growth [the clustering of development to avoid unwanted sprawl] as well." The reason, Cooksey says, is that the people working for local land trusts have local knowledge - they know the owners and managers of the land." He thinks the land trusts can provide "groundtruthing" as forest conservation plans are put into effect. "Who better to act as an ombudsman than people who have local interest and knowledge?" he asks.
According to Rob Etgen, executive director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, land trusts have become much more aware in the past several years of the ecological importance of open space and preserved landscapes. "We see this trend nationwide," he says. Etgen notes that the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy is currently working to save a significant land parcel just over the Bay Bridge that is one of the largest contiguous blocks of forest land in the mid-Shore area.
In Cooksey's view, these riparian forests are especially "strategic." Though they only comprise some 5 to 10 percent of the land in the watershed, he says, they play a key role in providing habitat and protecting water quality. Unfortunately, he says, close to 50 percent of these streamside and shoreside forests are now thought to be disturbed or degraded.
Another conservation group well known for its policy of purchasing lands to protect them is the Nature Conservancy - the Maryland Chapter has singled out for protection what it sees as four of the most biologically significant and least disturbed waterways in the Chesapeake region. These are the Nanticoke River on Maryland's Eastern Shore; Sideling Hill Creek, a watershed that drains 100,000 acres of western Maryland and Pennsylvania before entering the Potomac; Nassawango Creek, an 8,000-acre watershed on the Eastern Shore which feeds into the Pocomoke River; and Nanjemoy Creek, a 3,000-acre system which flows into the Potomac just south of Washington and home to a large blue heron rookery.
The price tag the Nature Conservancy placed on this effort when it was announced came to $10 million.
Of course not every local land trust can expect to raise that kind of money. The names of these trusts often reveal their local focus: the Harford Land Trust, the Fairfax Land Preservation Trust, the Potomac Conservancy, the Canaan Valley Institute. (See sidebar, "Local Land Trusts" on page 4.) "Many local land trusts not only lack the funds, but they lack the personnel to organize large fund raising efforts," says Elizabeth Hickey, of the University of Maryland's Environmental Finance Center. Hickey and others are interested in ways that small land trusts could work together to accomplish their goals - by sharing resources, such as computers and GIS information, for example, or by better using established networks such as USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service to get the word out about their efforts.
In some sense, the land trusts face the same problem as the forests themselves: separate ownership and fragmentation. Is it possible to join these fragments and, in effect, create a patchwork forest from public and private forest fragments? One way is through obtaining easements from private owners.
A Patchwork Solution?
The Land Trust Alliance is one group trying to help local trusts, large and small, work together. By its estimate, there are some 1,227 local, regional and national land trusts in the U.S. Funding is of course a major stumbling block, though many trusts have been successful in garnering support to buy up open space and streamside and forested land. Purchasing easements on pieces of privately owned property to save "ordinary" woods, however, could be a fund-raiser's nightmare.
According to Hickey, "The key will be finding a way to fund the purchase of easements along a targeted stretch of the watershed. We can't rely on government subsidies for this. We will need to tap private capital." Michael Curley, a member of the U.S. EPA's Environmental Finance Advisory Board, wonders why there couldn't be something like a revival of the grange concept. "It worked for farms," he says. "Why couldn't it work for forests?"
The idea here would be for owners of tracts of forest - no matter how small - to join the forest "grange," agreeing to set aside easements on their land to protect trees from the ax. But who would run these "granges" in small towns throughout the state?
Local land trusts could. Or where there are no land trusts, Curley says, "let the volunteer fire departments run them. Someone local. Someone the people trust."
Such an effort would save the forests from the grassroots up, using the power of individual landowners to save the forests, rather than dismantling them, piece by piece.
But would the average Bay-area landowner be willing to give up his or her development rights? Depending on their socioeconomic level, could they afford to?
If experts like Richard Cooksey are right, in many suburbanized areas, land owners with white collar jobs may well be willing to set aside easements. Curley notes that he has already done this on his Maryland property, once a farm.
For those in more remote areas, where the need to harvest or sell forest lands may be far greater, the challenge could be more difficult. According to Mick Womersley, of the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs, land preservation incentives do not necessarily serve this outlying, and often poorer, population very well. This group may not have access to information, and may not benefit from certain incentives, such as conventional tax breaks.
Whether through the grange concept or some alliance of many small land trusts, the protection of the Chesapeake watershed's remaining forests lies in the hands not only of large land holders - whether states or big businesses - but in the multitudinous hands of small landowners. The question of whether the watershed's forest jigsaw can be held together depends on answering a number of very difficult questions. Who will reach all these private landowners with the message that they hold the fate of the region's forests in their keeping? How will the landowners respond, even if they hear this message? What factors will weigh in the balance, between private property rights and a desire to preserve woodlands? Just how important are forests and woods to the average citizen? How much do they care?
These questions, along with the difficult puzzle of how to pay, line the path of those who do want to save what remains of forests in the Chesapeake region. As we move through the next century, photographs taken from space will tell the tale - of a green quilt of trees and streamside buffers, connected by wooded corridors, or a broken jigsaw puzzle of forests fragmented by highways, homes and shopping centers.