Tree conservation has taken center stage as seven new bills progress through the Virginia General Assembly. Introduced in both House and Senate chambers, these bills mainly give local governments broader authority to preserve and replace trees during the development process.
“The alarming loss of our tree canopy has ripple effects for Virginians who are seeing their backyard streams erode, their streets flood, and their utility bills increase,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Director of Outreach and Advocacy Ann Jurczyk said. “These bills empower local governments with tools to preserve their trees, enhance their communities, and prepare Virginia to be a climate-ready Commonwealth.”
The bills are advancing through the House and Senate with bipartisan support.
Virginia continues to lose trees at a significant rate, even though they are among the most cost-effective strategies to prepare communities for climate change threats, including school closures, heat islands, property destruction, and overflowing stormwater drains.
Between 2014 and 2018, the state suffered a net loss of 9,548 acres of both intact forest and urban tree canopy. New imagery is anticipated to show accelerated loss due to the widening of interstates, hotter wildfires, greater invasive species, and increased energy infrastructure.
Trees absorb water and nutrients, enable soil to absorb rainfall more readily, and prevent erosion. These abilities make them one of the most productive and cost-effective ways to prevent polluted runoff from reaching waterways, protect streams, and alleviate flood impacts. A one-inch rainfall on a one-acre parking lot, for example, results in 27,154 gallons of water entering low-lying areas and streams. In a forest, the same amount of rainfall produces only 750 gallons of runoff.
They also cool neighborhoods, reduce energy use, and beautify communities. Neighborhoods lacking trees suffer from heat islands, which correlate to heat-related hospital visits and, according to this Science Museum of Virginia study, can be concentrated in formerly redlined areas, raising environmental justice concerns.
The General Assembly bills aiming to protect trees include:
- HB 529 introduced by Del. Patrick Hope
- Currently, localities have limited authority to replace trees lost during construction. The bill provides all localities with the authority to establish a floor, not a ceiling, on tree replacement requirements and enables statewide adoption of tree conservation language.
- HB 170 introduced by Del. Karen Keys-Gamarra and HB 1100 introduced by Del. Betsy Carr
- Currently, only Planning District 8 consisting of Northern Virginia localities, has the authority to adopt tree conservation ordinances. These bills enable all localities to conserve more trees during development, provide incentives to preserve mature trees, and add flexibility for tree funds.
- HB 170 passed the House Cities Counties and Towns Subcommittee on Jan. 18 by a 6-2 bipartisan vote.
- HB 459 introduced by Del. Richard Sullivan and SB 121 introduced by Sen. Suhas Subramanyam
- Under these bills, localities can incentivize developers to conduct an assessment—before a site plan is submitted for approval—and take necessary precautions to preserve existing healthy trees. It also allows tree funds to be used for tree maintenance.
- HB 459 passed the House Cities Counties and Towns Committee by a 15-7 bipartisan vote on Jan. 19.
- HB 309 by Del. Patrick Hope and SB 461 by Sen. David Marsden
- The Forest Conservation Act would allow Virginia to determine how many acres of the Commonwealth’s forests are healthy, the cause behind the lost acreage, how to reconnect forest fragments, and identify opportunities for further conservation efforts.
- HB 309 passed the House Natural Resources Subcommittee Jan. 24 by a 10-0 vote.
- Mitigate tree loss due to road construction.
- The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also urges legislators to direct the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to study the loss of forest and urban tree canopy due to road construction and create a restoration plan.
An expansion of tree cover is among the critical environmental issues CBF is prioritizing this legislative session.