Forest stewardship is sacred trust


January 15, 1994|By TOM HORTON

Visiting the Southeast recently, I heard about the state of Alabama's plans for its last 60 acres of pristine, old-growth longleaf pines, many well into their third century.

The state plans to push a highway through the ancient grove. Only in Alabama, we laughed ruefully; and then I stopped laughing, because I recalled the Belt Woods in Maryland.

Growing improbably within a few miles of the Capital Beltway, they were 90 acres of skyscraping hardwoods, many of the oaks dating back to the time of the Pilgrims.

When National Geographic did an issue on the Americas as they looked when Columbus landed in 1492, they came to the Belt Woods.

So did lots of wildlife. Some of the highest densities of breeding forest birds ever recorded in the Eastern United States were documented there in 1947 and again in 1975.

It was around 1975 that the Washington-area Episcopal Church and the Mercantile bank of Baltimore teamed to auction the ancient oaks for veneer, by breaking the will of Seton Belt in a Prince George's County court.

Mr. Belt, who died in 1959, left the church, in trust with the Mercantile, an estate whose interest today pays hundreds of thousands annually. He stipulated unequivocally that his beloved woods never be logged.

The rest of his 624-acre home farm, he willed for building retirement housing for the elderly "or for other charitable purposes of similar nature."

Indeed, the church in the early 1970s did petition Prince George's County unsuccessfully for the sewerage and rezoning needed to build retirement housing there.

The plan was supported by environmentalists, who felt it was the best shot at preserving the unique woods. Many charged at the time that the county's unstated reason for denial was prejudice against low-income housing.

The bottom line was that by the early 1980s, half the great oak forest was stumps, the logs peeled at German mills to cover the walls of executive boardrooms in acres of one-forty-second-inch thick veneer.

The bank said it was only doing its duty to maximize income to the church. The church said the income would benefit the elderly, and it was only doing what the bank felt best.

The state of Maryland a few years later paid the trust nearly another $500,000 to preserve the remaining old growth from logging.

A decade has passed since then, a period in which organized religion, including the Episcopal Church, has made great strides in recognizing that our environmental crisis is in part a moral crisis.

Episcopalians can now point proudly to their church's resolve on issues that range from toxic waste to global warming; and take heart in official pledges to "passionately care for the Earth, striving to live into the promises and mandates which are ours as stewards of creation."

Good stuff indeed; but a visit last week to the Belt Woods leaves one wondering how this concern for the planet is translating into actions in the church's own backyard.

Represented by the Mercantile bank, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington is nearing final county approval for a development of 650 single-family dwellings on 500 or so acres of Belt's old home farm.

A two-year, county-ordered negotiation process aimed at protecting as much of the remaining natural areas as possible has left environmentalists frustrated.

"We had the opportunity here to develop a national model for how to build, while protecting natural forest values, but they would not back off on a single lot less than the maximum density allowed by the county," said Dan Boone, an expert forest ecologist and vice president of a local land conservancy.

Mr. Boone says the church has made concessions to protect the area's environment, but he points to a number of problems that fall far short of real stewardship:

* Proposed sewer lines will run through mature forest, necessitating cutting swaths of timber.

* Required storm-water holding ponds are proposed for wooded wetlands deemed by the state to be of "special significance" for their ecological values.

* The development plan claims "credit" for forest preservation through allowing existing open space now in field and hedgerow mature during the coming centuries.

* Greenways, forested corridors that would keep the state-preserved old growth connected to surrounding forest land, are inadequate.

The risk, over time, of "islanding" the ancient forest is that this leads to losses of wildlife and genetic diversity, he says.

The bottom line, Mr. Boone says, is that by dropping down to perhaps 500 lots and destroying 100 acres of mature forest instead of 150, "they could do something very good here."

John P. McDonough, the lawyer representing the Belt trust for the Mercantile bank, claims many issues, such as where to run sewer lines and where to put storm-water ponds, "are still undecided."

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