Historic Forest Preservation Legislation Approved by Maryland General Assembly

The bill represents the most significant changes to the state’s Forest Conservation Act since it passed in 1991

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is celebrating the General Assembly’s formal approval today of legislation that will protect more forested land in Maryland. 

SB 526 includes the most significant changes to Maryland’s landmark Forest Conservation Act since the law was passed more than 30 years ago. The new forest protections, among the strongest in the country, received strong bipartisan approval in both the Senate and House of Delegates. 

CBF is now asking Gov. Wes Moore to sign the bill into law. 

CBF and partner environmental organizations have been working for nearly a decade to update Maryland’s outdated forest protection requirements. The aging 1991 law was allowing consistent forest and tree canopy loss, contributing to a reduction of about 19,000 acres from 2013 to 2018, according to a study released last year by the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology. New construction was causing most of the forest and tree loss, according to the study. 

The legislation approved by lawmakers this year simplifies the arcane formulas used to determine replanting requirements after construction crews clear trees, while also providing flexibility to jurisdictions to address growth needs such as affordable housing and transit-oriented development. Del. Sara Love and Sen. Sarah Elfreth were the lead sponsors of the legislation. 

“We’re extending a hearty thanks to Maryland lawmakers today for their conscientious work to pass forest protection legislation,” said Matt Stegman, CBF’s Maryland Staff Attorney. “This bill is the culmination of years of effort to improve the state’s outdated 1991 Forest Conservation Act. The new protections in this bill will chart Maryland on a path toward forest growth rather than continue the state’s long history of forest loss. We look forward to Gov. Moore signing SB526 into law.” 

The most significant changes in the legislation include: 

  • Setting a statewide goal to increase the acreage of forested land and tree canopy. 
  • Increasing replanting requirements for developers who clear forest by requiring them to replant each acre of forest cleared in most cases. Previously, developers were only required to replace a fraction, if any, of the forested land cleared for new construction. 
  • Providing local governments flexible options to stop net forest loss. These alternatives are coupled with regular reviews by the state’s Department of Natural Resources to ensure the local plans align with state forest protection goals. 

The forest protection legislation comes as Maryland prepares for rising sea levels, stronger storms, and other harm caused by climate change. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts Chesapeake Bay sea levels to rise between 1.3 and 5.2 feet during the next century, which threatens coastal communities. Warming Bay temperatures threaten important species such as eelgrass, which forms critical habitat for blue crabs and fish.  

Last year, the General Assembly passed the landmark Climate Solutions Now Act to lower statewide greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling climate change. In 2021, legislators approved a measure to plant 5 million trees in the state during the next decade. 

“Protecting forests is an imperative step for Maryland to mitigate climate change,” said Doug Myers, CBF’s Maryland Senior Scientist. “The state is making a major investment to plant 5 million new trees, so it just makes sense to protect the ones we have and ensure private developers plant new trees after land is cleared.” 

Myers added, “Trees are among our best natural defenses against climate change. Trees significantly cool the water when planted along streams and coasts; reduce flooding by soaking up water; sequester carbon in their branches, roots, and trunks; as well as filter air and water. Forests and tree canopies also serve as habitat for animals, provide recreation for residents and visitors, and beautify communities.” 

Despite this, new construction projects such as mega warehouses and ongoing sprawl development continue to threaten large swaths of forested land in Maryland. Local jurisdictions have seen the need and have updated their policies to address ongoing forest loss in their communities. Since 2019, Anne Arundel, Howard, Frederick, and Montgomery counties have bolstered their local forest protections, underscoring the need for more robust statewide changes. 

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A.J. Metcalf

Former Maryland Media & Communications Coordinator, CBF

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