University of Delaware entomologist Douglas W. Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, finds it curious that the American news media lament the loss of tropical forests yet “have remained silent” about the destruction of local forests.
In the past eight years, developers have cut down 14,480 acres of forest in Maryland without replacement, according to records kept by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Every day in Maryland, a forest area the size of four football fields is cut down to make way for new subdivisions, strip malls and other development.
Of all places, this shouldn’t be happening in Maryland. Recognizing that forests were disappearing at an alarming rate, Maryland enacted the Forest Conservation Act in 1991. The law was intended to minimize the clearing of forests by developers.
The FCA is not getting the job done. Too little forest is being conserved in Maryland.
A bill in the Maryland General Assembly would strengthen the forest law and protect perhaps hundreds of forest acres a year. In most cases, the legislation would require developers to replant one acre for each acre they clear. Maryland has a dire need for these trees, especially along river banks that were denuded years ago by development or farming. Trees filter polluted runoff before it reaches the streams.
The bill also would give local jurisdictions the option of charging higher fees to developers who claim they can’t find a place to replant. The local governments would then use the revenue from these fees-in-lieu to replant trees.
Developers are trying to block the legislation, claiming replanting would increase costs. Some local governments have joined in that lament.
But those same local governments have far more to lose from doing nothing. Forests provide counties billions of dollars in ecosystem services. The forests of Prince George’s County, for instance, remove 4.3 billion gallons of polluted runoff a year. If taxpayers had to provide those services, the cost would be $12.8 billion, according to a 2015 study by the Low Impact Development Center in Beltsville. The same forests also remove 5,100 metric tons of airborne pollutants, a service worth $21 million.
And some benefits cannot be adequately measured in dollars. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service says one acre of forest provides oxygen for 18 people for one day. What is the economic value of that? What is the cost of Maryland losing an average of at least 1,800 acres of forests a year?
It’s bad economics to allow developers to cut so much forest and eliminate so much of the public benefit of those trees without adequate compensation. It’s bad health and environmental policy.
We become apathetic about forests at our peril. There’s too much at stake. Forests are some of the most cost-effective means we have to clean the air and water. They are nature’s sponges.
That’s especially important now. We are depending on forests to play a critical role in saving the Chesapeake Bay, to soak up polluted runoff from farm fields and city streets. We also are counting on trees to help reduce the rising temperatures of the planet by sponging up carbon dioxide.
Let forests continue to help us. Put conservation back in the state Forest Conservation Act.
Alison Prost is the Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation