It’s an old question, ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ In Maryland, it appears county leaders are listening.
In the past year, elected officials in Anne Arundel, Howard, and Frederick County have all increased forest protections. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland staff worked with partner groups and leaders in all three counties to strengthen their polices, which now go beyond aging state law. Maryland has not significantly altered forest protections statewide since the General Assembly passed the landmark 1991 Forest Conservation Act.
Frederick County is the most recent highlight, where an old policy became new again this July. The County Council unanimously approved a no net loss forest law that requires developers to replant every acre of forest removed for a project. The county had the same regulation in place from 2008 to 2011, which resulted in no forest being lost. But from 2012 to 2019 Frederick lost about 500 acres of forest when weaker forest protections were in place.
CBF supported the county’s effort to bring back the old policy through direct advocacy with Council members as well as public outreach.
“We’re happy to see Frederick County put in place a policy that will stop forest loss,” said Erik Fisher, CBF’s Maryland Assistant Director and Land Use Planner. “It’s a regulation we believe is simple, effective, and would benefit forests statewide.”
The Frederick County Council also approved a second policy to exclude forested areas and other sensitive environmental features from density calculations for development projects. By doing so, the bill will encourage smart growth and sustainable site design.
Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner tweeted after the Council vote on that policy that the new law will, “protect our environment, historic and cultural amenities, and better evaluate transportation BEFORE rezoning.” Gardner put forth the changes and fought for them as the Council debated them during the spring and summer.
Like Gardner, strong leadership from Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball was instrumental in helping those two counties strengthen their forest protection measures.
In November, Anne Arundel County increased replanting requirements for developers when they cut down trees for new projects and increased fees to help offset replanting costs elsewhere. The next month, Howard County approved its increased forest protections, which doubled the replanting requirement of state law and requires developers to locate three quarters of their replanting requirements on the same property where the trees were cleared.
Trees, other vegetation, and soils that compose forests filter out chemicals and excessive nutrients from water as well as harmful air particles such as sulfur dioxide. Forests’ ability to reduce carbon dioxide helps fight climate change. The county-level efforts to conserve and plant more trees is also helping Maryland meet pollution reduction goals in time for the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint’s 2025 deadline.
The counties have been moving forward in the face of inaction at the state level. The General Assembly examined updating the state’s aging forest conservation law in 2017 and 2018, but opted instead to commission a study of the state’s overall forest and tree canopy loss. The work on that study is ongoing and, at this time, it’s unclear if new data will be available for legislators to examine during the 2021 General Assembly, which is scheduled to start in January.
Previous research presented to the General Assembly in 2017 estimated that Maryland lost more than 14,450 acres of forest to development from 2009 to 2017. Trees were being lost at an even faster pace before the 2008 recession—at about 7,000 acres per year, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Meanwhile, CBF is encouraging other Maryland counties to evaluate their forest protection measures and strengthen them. In the months to come, Montgomery County, Charles County and other jurisdictions are expected to examine their policies.