Legislation Introduced to Save Maryland’s Best Forests

Bill Would Update Flawed Conservation Law That Isn't Protecting "Priority" Forests as Intended

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—Legislation was introduced today to help slow the destruction of Maryland's forests by updating the state's 27-year-old Forest Conservation Act (FCA). The forest loss is costing billions of dollars in lost ecosystem services, especially in counties in Southern Maryland, as well as Anne Arundel, Harford and elsewhere. 

"We can't continue to forfeit so many of our best forests if we hope to save the our groundwater, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. Strengthening the Forest Conservation Act helps ensure a better planet for our children and grandchildren," said Senator Ron Young, (D-Frederick/Washington), chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate.

The bill (SB610/HB766) is particularly important now as Maryland and other states and localities in the region finally are making progress restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. That progress is being undercut by the loss of forests, one of nature's most cost-effective pollution filters. Taxpayers fund many expensive projects to reduce polluted runoff around the state, but development cuts down thousands of acres of woodlands that provide the same service for free. 

The Forest Conservation Act was enacted in 1991 to stem the rate of forest loss from development in Maryland, and also to protect the most ecologically significant woods from development. The Act says "priority" forests, including forests connected to other forests,"shall" be left undisturbed unless a developer "exhausts" all effort to save them.

The Act has had mixed results over 27 years: it slowed the clearance of some less valuable forests butenabled the wholesale cutting of our best forests. It also failed to replace lost forests in a substantial way through replanting. Examples of development projects that virtually clear-cut priority forests include:

  • Parkside subdivision development in Anne Arundel where 135 acres of forest was cleared, or 74 percent of the total forest on site.
  • The Estates at Patapsco Park in Howard County where 48 acres were cleared, or 79 percent of the forest on site.
  • Woodmore Towne Centre at Glenarden in Prince George's where 193 acres of forest was cleared, or 83 percent of the total forests on the tract.

The FCA enables forest destruction, perhaps inadvertently, because it poorly defines "priority" forests, doesn't effectively require builders to justify clearing priority forests, and uses a formula that sanctions large-scale clearance of properties that are heavily forested.

The state lost at least 17,000 acres of forests in the past nine years to subdivisions, shopping centers, and other development, according to county FCA annual reports. Prince George's alone experienced a net loss of over 7,500 acres of forest to development during that time. Other counties with high forest loss to development include: Anne Arundel, Charles, St. Mary's, and Calvert.

"We don't want to stop development. We want our existing law to work to protect our best forests, while still allowing development," said Delegate Anne Healey (D-Prince George's), chief sponsor of the bill in the House. "This bill focuses on preserving and protecting our priority forests."

Forest loss brings economic, health, and ecological costs. For instance, water pollution increases. Since 1973,forest loss in the Baltimore-Washington region has resulted in a 19 percent increase in polluted runoff (enough to fill more than 6,100 Olympic-sized swimming pools) at a cost of over $1 billion. Prince George's County alone plans to spend over $287 million in a five-year period to reduce polluted runoff. Other counties also are spending millions to reduce the problem that forests do for free.

Since forests provide multiple health benefits, including the production of oxygen and the sequestration of carbon, forest loss also jeopardizes human health. One acre of trees produces enough oxygen in a day to support 18 people. The more forests we lose, the unhealthier our environment becomes, or we must pay large sums to restore that environment.

SB610/HB766 would:

  1. Clearly define "priority" forests,
  2. Clarify what justifies clearing priority forests,
  3. Require that an acre of forest be replanted for each acre of priority forest cut down,
  4. Clarify that forest protection planning must come early in the development process,
  5. Authorize and encourage better spending of fee-in lieu money so state, local and nonprofit agencies and groups that already replant trees can use some of those fees.

A hearing on the Senate bill has been scheduled for Feb. 20.

Take action to tell your county and state legislators how valuable trees are to our environment, economy, and way of life. Tell them we need more trees and ask them to update the Forest Conservation Act to protect our most ecologically valuable forests.

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