ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 12 -- Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, state Senate leaders and environmentalists announced a compromise reforestation plan today meant to stem the loss of trees to development and bolster the Chesapeake Bay's natural defenses.
Maryland has lost 40 percent of its forest cover in recent decades, and at current rates of development about 300,000 acres of forest would disappear during the next 30 years, said state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad (D-Anne Arundel).
Trees are an important environmental buffer, and without steps to protect them the bay's health will deteriorate further, he said.
"No way we can sustain this loss and revive the heart and lungs of the bay," said Winegrad, who appeared at a State House meeting with Schaefer, Sen. John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel) and others to unveil the proposal. "I wish we were outside so we could all hug an oak."
The compromise is the result of a yearlong negotiation among Schaefer's staff members, Senate leaders, environmentalists and developers. The group was convened after a similar bill died in the waning moments of last year's General Assembly session amid allegations that House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. (D-Kent) singlehandedly blocked its approval because of its potential impact on developers.
Although the House of Delegates refused to participate in the compromise discussions, according to Schaefer environmental aide David A.C. Carroll, the administration has high hopes the bill will pass.
"This is a bill that all Marylanders can actively support," said Schaefer, who cited the value of trees, from their ability to control erosion to their role as an environmental sponge that soaks up pollutants before they reach the water table. A separate Schaefer administration effort is underway to plant 1 million trees in Maryland this year.
Winegrad and Cade, the sponsors of past reforestation proposals, said they expect to have the support of major developers and builders' groups after agreeing to a compromise that would require less extensive reforestation for some types of projects in return for guarantees that at least a minimum amount of land at any development site be covered with trees.
Under the bill, developers could clear 50 to 80 percent of the trees from a site, depending on the type of project, and would have to replant a half-acre of trees for each acre felled. Clearing trees beyond those thresholds would require two acres of trees to be replanted for each acre cleared.
Developers who found it impractical to replant would have to pay about $6,500 per acre into a state reforestation fund.
In addition, at least 20 percent of the land at all developments -- including land with no trees -- would have to be forested. That plan to expand the state's tree cover was a major selling point for environmentalists.
"This is a better proposal than we had before," said Cade, who was furious at the death of last year's reforestation bill.
The legislation unveiled today has 33 co-sponsors in the Senate, a majority of the 47-member body. Its fate in the House is less certain, although Winegrad and Cade said they expect support from developers and believe that an exemption for farming will help discourage possible complaints from the Eastern Shore and other rural areas.
Reforestation has become a sensitive topic in suburban Maryland, where thousands of acres of forest have been cleared for tract housing. Cade and Winegrad have been particularly alert to the issue because of controversy in Anne Arundel County over the loss of trees to construction.