The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion NASA forestland should be added to Patuxent Research Refuge

A family fishes at Cash Lake at the Patuxent Research Refuge on July 11 in Laurel. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
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Ann Swanson is executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative Commission. Joel Dunn is president and chief executive of Chesapeake Conservancy, a regional conservation nonprofit.

The Biden administration recently issued its first progress report on the “America the Beautiful” initiative, a multiagency effort to support conservation and to achieve a goal of conserving 30 percent of lands and waters across the nation by 2030.

The America the Beautiful initiative responds to an urgent call to action by scientists and conservationists around the world to protect nature and wildlife. When coupled with the challenges of achieving the Chesapeake Bay Program’s goals to protect forests and expand tree canopy, conservationists in Maryland — including the authors of this opinion — were surprised to learn that NASA, a federal agency, plans to divest a 105-acre forested property from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. It was even more shocking to discover that rather than protecting this valuable forestland known as “Area 400” and transferring it to the Patuxent Research Refuge (PRR), directly adjacent to the property and owned by another federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NASA’s intent is to sell the property on the open market. On Dec. 27, the Public Buildings Reform Board concurred, recommending its “disposal.”

With sky-high demand for real estate in the D.C. metro area, a private sale of NASA’s Area 400 will almost inevitably lead to development and the permanent loss of around 100 acres of forestland. This outcome is completely unacceptable and flies in the face of the nation’s America the Beautiful initiative and the bay region’s goals for forest retention and tree canopy retention and expansion.

Area 400 has been undisturbed for decades and is a mixed forest, featuring mature upland hardwood trees. The fact that the property is adjacent to the PRR makes Area 400 especially valuable, because it extends wildlife habitat and serves as a buffer against noise and light pollution from nearby roads and development. PRR itself is home to an abundance of diverse wildlife and vegetation. More than 200 species of birds have been spotted in the refuge, along with hundreds and hundreds of other species, including bats, foxes, turtles, frogs, beavers, lots of fish and endless insects.

Look at a Google Earth image of the Baltimore-Washington corridor, and you can’t miss the green blob squeezed between the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Route 50 and Interstate 97. This is some of the region’s last intact forestland and includes the refuge. It is rather amazing that such a diversity of wildlife can exist in a landscape that is otherwise highly developed.

In addition to serving as vital habitat for wildlife, the forestland in and around the refuge serves an important role in the health of the Chesapeake Bay by filtering out pollutants that would otherwise flow into rivers and into bodies of water, including our beloved Chesapeake Bay. The headwaters of the Patuxent River flow through this natural landscape, as does a portion of the headwaters of the Anacostia River. The forest floor serves like a natural sponge. Former Maryland state senator Bernie Fowler, who died last month, taught us the importance of the forest and many other things during his annual “wade-ins” to the Patuxent River.

This forested area is also vital for human health. Forests filter out air pollutants and sequester carbon from the atmosphere, which is important for the health of nearby communities. In addition, PRR has become a popular destination for many area residents to explore nature and hike around the refuge’s trails. Were it not for the refuge and surrounding forested areas, many of these nearby and diverse communities would completely lack any meaningful access to nature.

The obvious and best solution for NASA is to transfer the Area 400 property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage as a part of the PRR. This would permanently preserve the conservation values of the property as forestland and wildlife habitat, and it would maintain green space for nearby communities. Importantly, conserving Area 400 would maintain a significant swath of forestland that will support the long-term health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. By selling the property, NASA will all but ensure the development of Area 400 and permanent loss of forests. NASA should ensure a conservation outcome by transferring the property to the Patuxent Research Refuge.

As the cherry on top of this victory, let’s name this the Bernie Fowler Forest, dedicated to one of Maryland’s greatest champions of conservation and the Chesapeake Bay.