A Bank With Too Many Branches?

March 23, 1994

While the Carroll commissioners' proposal to protect county woodlands through "tree banking" is an idea worth exploring, not all tree banks are created equal. Allowing industrial and commercial developers who can't satisfy the county's tree-preservation law to purchase "credits" for excess trees planted on other properties seems a good idea. But extending these benefits to residential developers creates new problems.

The thrust of the county's forest conservation program is to preserve Carroll's existing woodlands whenever possible. Since it is an unrealistic wish that all woodlands could be saved from the bulldozer's maw in a growing county, county law calls for developers to replace trees that they remove. Developers are encouraged to plant new trees in wetlands, flood plains or on steep embankments. In some cases, they can replant on other privately or publicly owned parcels.

Under the tree-banking proposal being considered, developers could purchase "credits" in lieu of planting trees. They would buy these trees from landowners with easements on their woodlands or from those who are planting trees or letting forests regenerate on farm fields. Under the current proposal, the county could also serve as a "tree bank" by selling off credits from its wooded parcels.

The idea has merit. Allowing private landowners to plant trees and sell credits would improve Carroll's environment. Farmers and others would receive monetary rewards for protecting streams and planting trees on steep slopes and marginally productive land. (However, the county, which owns about 6,000 acres, should not develop a tree bank that would compete with these landowners.)

Allowing residential developers to use tree banking poses some problems, though. Unlike industrial developers, homebuilders can build on conservation zoned land, which often is heavily wooded. If these builders rely on tree-banking, they will have little incentive to preserve existing woods. They will be able to fell trees pell-mell and pay for plantings in the county's more remote sections. Replacing large stands of old trees with saplings would not be a sound way to bank environmental assets. The commissioners must ensure that this innovative tree-banking program, if carried out, would not undermine the very purpose of Carroll's forest conservation law.

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