Correction to This Article
An article in the Oct. 8 Prince William Extra about a report on the state of forests within the Chesapeake Bay watershed cited a figure on the estimated increase of nitrogen in bay tributaries that the report's authors now say was incorrect. Conservation Fund officials said recently that they had not calculated the percentage of increase for nitrogen.

County Is Losing Woodland To Builders

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

The Chesapeake Bay watershed is losing 100 acres of forest every day as development eats away at that crucial natural pollution filter, and more than a third of its wooded land could be gone by 2030, according to a new report.

"The State of Chesapeake Forests" was issued Sept. 22 by the U.S. Forest Service and the Conservation Fund, an Arlington-based environmental group. The report, promoted as the first such look at woods across the huge watershed, from southern Virginia to central New York, found that 58 percent was forested land.

That's the result of a significant regrowth of forests that has filled in abandoned farms along the East Coast since the 1800s, the report said. But the bad news, according to the report, is that houses and highways are now threatening these forests.

Some parts of the Washington region, including counties in Virginia and Maryland, seem to be at the leading edge of this trend. Fairfax County, for instance, lost almost 26 percent of its forestland from 1986 to 1999.

"We've been gaining forests in the region for most of the last century," said Al Todd, an official at the U.S. Forest Service who worked on the report. "But now we are looking at a net loss of forestlands."

In the parlance of environmentalists, forests are the most bay-friendly "land use" there is. By contrast, farms dump large amounts of fertilizer and animal manure, full of the pollutants nitrogen and phosphorus. They cause large algal blooms and create oxygen-poor "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay. Urban areas are even worse, in many ways, because of the nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage plants and the oily, toxic pollutants that wash off roads and parking lots.

Forests contribute just 15 percent of the bay's nitrogen and 2 percent of its phosphorus despite taking up more than half of the watershed's land area, the report found. Environmentalists say the virtues of trees include preventing erosion along stream banks, filtering pollution from rainwater and absorbing pollutants from the air.

"The bay is naturally a forested watershed," said Eric Sprague, a project manager at the Conservation Fund. "All life, including aquatic life, evolved in a forested watershed."

The predicted reduction in these forests is based, in part, on trends that are obvious to any Washington area resident. Development, the conversion of farms and forests into strip malls and suburbs, has noticeably reduced the woodlands in several urban and suburban counties.

Anne Arundel County lost 42,000 acres of forest between 1986 and 1999, according to the report. That was one of the largest declines in the watershed and means that 3.3 percent of the county's forest was consumed. The picture was better, but still not good, in St. Mary's County, where 22,000 acres (or 1.7 percent) of forest was lost in the same time. Howard County lost 6,000 acres (1 percent), and Montgomery lost 2,000 acres (0.2 percent), according to the survey.

In the Virginia suburbs, the largest losses of forest were in Fairfax County, which saw 25,000 acres, or 25.7 percent, disappear from 1984 to 2002; Prince William County, with 20,000 acres, or 16.8 percent; and Spotsylvania County, with 12,000 acres, or 6.5 percent.

Over the next few decades, much more land could be opened up to development, as trends in the timber industry prompt large lumber companies to sell land and the owners of small private forest plots age.

"There's a window now of maybe 10 or 15 years, after which we'll be facing a tidal wave of land coming on the market," said Larry Selzer, the Conservation Fund's president.

In the worst-case scenario projected by the report, 9.5 million of the Chesapeake Bay watershed's 24 million wooded acres could be threatened by development before 2030. If all were developed, the report predicted, the amount of nitrogen in Chesapeake tributaries could increase by 200 percent, a crippling blow to save-the-bay efforts.

Another blow, the report said, could be the breaking up of forests into progressively smaller chunks, leaving few pieces that are large enough to support animals such as bears, deer and birds.

To head off these problems, the report's authors suggested that authorities identify strategically important forests -- along stream banks, for example -- and make special efforts to protect them. They also recommended that jurisdictions alter land-use planning to ensure that development does not come at the expense of woodlands.

Todd said he suggested that Virginia and Pennsylvania adopt lawssuch as Maryland's Forest Conservation Act, which incorporates forest protection into the planning for large development projects.

One step to preserve trees was taken recently by the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which awarded small grants to several jurisdictions for "community greening." Recipients included Annapolis, which plans to plant 150 to 200 trees in the Heritage neighborhood, and Hyattsville, which is planning an inventory of its trees.

"It puts us in a position to develop our tree plan," said Elaine Murphy, Hyattsville's city administrator.

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