2023 Maryland Legislative Session

Nikki Davis

This year, CBF called on legislators to bolster three natural powerhouses for clean water and a more stable climate: trees, living shorelines, and oysters. Efforts to protect and grow these natural filters—along with full funding for Maryland’s environmental restoration initiatives—can help meet Bay restoration goals and address persistent inequities in local environmental conditions.

Protecting Forests and Planting Trees

In 2022, a thorough analysis of Maryland’s forests concluded that Maryland’s forests are in trouble. Researchers found continued losses in forest cover, especially in the fast-growing regions of central and southern Maryland. Forests spared from clearing were often left fragmented, with formerly interior habitats exposed to invasive species and encroaching development. A program to offset forest losses through mitigation banking was far out of balance, allowing too many developers to clear wide swaths of forest without replanting a single tree. Nevertheless, the study found that with the right policies and investments in place, Maryland can achieve a net gain in forests and tree canopy.

This spring, the General Assembly answered the call. SB 526 and HB 723, sponsored by Sen. Sarah Elfreth and Del. Sara Love, will hold the line against forest loss during development and includes provisions to increase tree cover.

As passed, SB 526 and HB 723:

  • update Maryland’s tree goals to achieve a net gain of forests and tree canopy;
  • strengthen the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) to better protect priority and contiguous blocks of forest, as well as replant more trees when forests do come down; and
  • provide balanced and effective tools to preserve and support healthy forests in communities across the state.

Once these bills are signed by Governor Moore, most woodlands cleared for development will need to be offset on a 1:1 basis. And, clear standards for protecting our state's highest priority forests will help keep more trees in the ground in the first place. In addition, Governor Moore and the General Assembly fully funded the state's ongoing 5 Million Tree planting program for urban communities, public open spaces, and streamside buffers on farms. More trees mean cleaner water and communities that are more resilient to the rising temperatures and flooding rains associated with climate change. These investments will also help to correct disproportionately low rates of tree cover in underserved communities that desire more.

Growing Oyster Aquaculture

Oysters are both a key natural filter and an iconic (and tasty!) local food. While restoration efforts are helping to stabilize and expand wild oyster populations, they remain at a tiny fraction of their historic abundance. Oyster aquaculture can augment the wild fishery, sustainably helping to meet growing food demand and cleaning the Bay in the process. Maryland’s shellfish aquaculture industry has grown significantly, but there is still opportunity for this burgeoning industry to expand.

Unfortunately, producers are struggling with delays in lease processing, lack of market access, and access to start-up capital. The COVID-19 pandemic also clearly demonstrated the need to build additional resilience into the industry through the development of alternative revenue streams and markets for aquacultured shellfish products.

This year, CBF urged the General Assembly to:

  • offer accelerated leasing adjacent to certain state-owned properties;
  • reduce the time it takes to process and execute leases;
  • remove financial barriers to new industry entrants and encourage increased producer diversity; and
  • develop a pilot program to provide financial incentives for oyster aquaculture practices that contribute to habitat restoration and water quality improvements.

The legislature gave the nod to the last of these priority actions by passing SB 434—a bill that creates a restorative aquaculture pilot program administered by the Department of Natural Resources. This program will provide incentives to aquaculture leaseholders whose operations meet or exceed oyster restoration metrics. SB 434 is an important step to more fully supporting this eco-friendly industry—but the job isn't done. CBF and our partners will work hard in the interim to position the remainder of these important policies for success in 2024.

Strengthening Coastal Resilience

Maryland is on the front lines of climate change, facing rising seas, turbulent storms, upland flooding, and stress from increased air and water temperatures. These impacts can be particularly challenging for underserved communities and can make existing disparities in pollution burdens even worse. But legislators can help turn the tide by targeting investments to practices that can fight climate change while protecting and improving water quality. Lawmakers can also ensure that laws and regulations governing our shorelines, stormwater systems, and vulnerable natural areas are up to the task.

This work starts with protecting what is left of our natural shoreline reaches and adding to them through targeted investment in living shoreline techniques. In most cases, replenishing or re-establishing underwater grasses, wetlands, beaches, and oyster reefs can better manage coastal flooding, support wildlife, and safeguard adjacent natural areas than hardened bulkheads and stone revetments.

SB 417, sponsored by Sen. Elfreth, called on the state to:

  • identify priority areas to increase the amount of living shorelines installed;
  • stop the widespread use of waivers to harden areas where living shorelines are viable; and
  • restart a successful assistance program for landowners to replace hardened shoreline with natural techniques.

Though this bill did not advance out of Committee, CBF's advocacy did provide momentum on this issue including commitments from the Maryland Department of the Environment and other stakeholders to work cooperatively during the interim to explore how best to reform the living shoreline waiver process and development of financial incentives for property owners to install living shoreline elements. CBF is committed to protecting the Bay's shorelines and making Maryland communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change. We look forward to putting this critical issue back in front of legislators next January.

The Bay Needs You

The State of the Bay Report makes it clear that the Bay needs our support now more than ever. Your donation helps the Chesapeake Bay Foundation maintain our momentum toward a restored Bay, rivers, and streams for today and generations to come.

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Founded in 1967, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is the largest independent conservation organization dedicated solely to saving the Bay.

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