It's simple: Save trees, save the bay


September 05, 1992|By TOM HORTON

I never met a tree I didn't like. That's why my house is located at the shady juncture of Oak Ridge Drive and Acorn Street.

It is why I was more than a little upset a couple years ago when I heard the chain saws early one morning, ripping into one of my neighbor's great old oaks.

I tried to be philosophical. Probably he feared it would fall on his house. Then the tree-service crew started in on two more -- a long way from the house.

Maybe he was building a swimming pool.

Oh well, to each his own, free country and all that. A smallish pool would still leave lots of trees next to my yard.

By noon, there was room for a very large pool -- with lots of open space for sunbathing.

By late afternoon, the yard was clear cut. Stumps were ground and mulched, and the bare spots seeded with grass. One day's work had extinguished the growth of perhaps a hundred years.

The neighbor never built a pool. Six months later he moved away (to the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, I hope).

Life can be tough for tree lovers in a state like Maryland, which is losing its forests at the clip of an estimated 16 square miles each year.

Forests that covered virtually all of the state before European settlement are nearly 60 percent gone now.

That still leaves 2.7 million acres of trees. But the statistic doesn't convey the distribution of our forest. A lot of it is banked in a few rural counties.

Where the people are is where we have the least forest, are

losing it the fastest, and need it most.

Despite the trends, and my setbacks on the corner of Oak Ridge and Acorn, I've grown more optimistic in recent years because Maryland is working to preserve trees

Only now does there seem to be danger of backsliding.

Retaining trees is critical to much more than my backyard pleasure. In addition to their obvious value as wildlife habitat, trees perform immense water-quality functions for the Chesapeake Bay.

Even some bay researchers are surprised at how much trees do. Recently the scientists were calculating the amount of nitrogen washed into the bay from different land uses. Nitrogen causes an explosive growth of algae that in turn causes large volumes of the bay to lose oxygen.

When the runoff data were fed into super-computers that model how pollution affects the bay, a mystery arose.

Forest, as expected, produced less polluted runoff than farming or development; but an acre of forest still sent 2 pounds of nitrogen into the bay per year.

Two pounds is a lot. How could this happen?

The fault was in the air, scientists found. Now there's so much nitrogen, mainly from automobiles and power plants, that every year 10 pounds per acre is deposited on the bay's forests.

But forests work hard. They remove 80 percent of a prime pollutant and keep millions of pounds of it from reaching the bay.

Because trees work for free, we scarcely notice the job they do. But nitrogen runoff leaps from 2 to 10 pounds if we turn an acre of trees into a parking lot.

To mobilize people, perhaps we should tell them that when a tree dies somewhere far up a bay tributary, a rockfish dies down in the bay.

It's no joke: Trees reduce nitrogen, which means less algae, which means more oxygen in the water and a greater chance for rockfish to feed and grow.

Save a tree, save the bay.

And we're making progress. In 1986 the Maryland Critical Area law began requiring replacement of trees lost to development around the edges of the bay and its tidal rivers.

In 1988 state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, pushed through a law that required trees destroyed by state development projects to be replaced by a similar acreage.

The following year, protection of trees was extended to all projects with state funding.

In 1991 the legislature passed the first statewide, comprehensive forest-retention act in the country. It applies to virtually all development and construction, and may even slow down people like my ex-neighbor. (The law requires "long-term protective plans" for existing areas of forest.)

The new Maryland Forest Conservation Act requires that between 15 percent and 50 percent of the trees existing on a given development site be retained, or if they can't be, that developers pay around $4,000 per acre into a reforestation fund.

The bill will not stop our forest losses, but it is the best attempt yet to slow them. Although it is precedent-setting now, my guess is that the legislation ultimately won't be seen to go nearly far enough.

Developed by a task force that represented a consensus of developers, environmentalists, foresters and local governments, it exempts agriculture, power lines and Garrett and Allegany counties (which have lots of trees and not much development).

Some of the law's subtler provisions may prove as important as its overt protections. It equates retention of native forest with architectural and historical preservation; and it requires natural resources inventories before development of a site, critical in identifying plants and animal habitat most at risk in the state.

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