Water quality, woods highlighted Watershed: Virginia's legislature does a welcome turnaround on pollution, and loggers lick their chops over Pennsylvania's lush forests.

On the Bay

March 07, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

NEWS THIS WEEK from north and south of us: encouraging signs of an environmental turnaround in Virginia; and in Pennsylvania, bringing "ecosystem management" to a mammoth forest coveted by loggers and deer.

It is a pleasure to write of good environmental news out of Virginia, where Gov. George F. Allen's administration has spent the last few years welshing on Chesapeake Bay commitments.

Before the legislature adjourned last month, it passed two bills called "historic" in importance by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Richmond, Va., office.

The first bill addresses many shortcomings pointed out by a scathing, bipartisan legislative review of the Department of Environmental Quality.

After lengthy negotiations involving the DEQ, industry, legislators and environmental groups, the bill passed both House and Senate unanimously.

It means the state will finally take a more serious and comprehensive approach to monitoring toxic substances and other pollutants. What's more, the evaluations will be made public through telephone hot lines, the Internet, news media and postings of contaminated waters.

Law sets a schedule

The new law -- assuming Allen signs it -- also sets a schedule for bringing all Virginia's polluted waterways into compliance with federal standards.

As part of this, the state would have to calculate the amount of pollution -- from all sources -- a stream or river section could stand every day and remain healthy.

The idea is to look at pollution from the bay's viewpoint, rather than as discharges permitted from dozens or hundreds of individual sites. Doing it could actually vault Virginia ahead of many states' water quality programs.

A second major bill will provide millions of new money annually to control the nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage and land runoff that are the largest cause of the bay's decline.

It will be financed with 10 percent of Virginia's annual budget surplus, and 10 percent of unexpended state agency budgets. Initial funding is projected at $15 million.

Add to these bills several other pieces of water-quality legislation passed by the Virginia legislature, and you only hope Maryland's General Assembly does as well by adjournment next month.

Valuable lesson

You also hope Virginians have learned a lesson about what happens when the environment is not raised to the level of a real issue in political campaigns.

Allen, when he ran for governor, heard far more about "getting government off our backs." He felt free to interpret it as a mandate to follow his worst inclinations for water and air quality in feverishly pitching the commonwealth to new businesses.

He was wrong -- this year's legislative backlash proves it. But the bottom line remains:

At a time when growing populations are stressing the bay as never before, and when times cry out for innovation and boldness and redoubled efforts, Virginia spun its wheels (at best) for nearly four years.

Meanwhile, in Penn's Woods -- or Pennsylvania -- the future of the forest is at stake.

Forests cover about 24.5 million of the Chesapeake watershed's 41 million acres, and are the bay's least polluting land use. Though we worry about present losses to development, compared with forest losses at the turn of the century, we have more trees in many regions.

Old growth is lost

In Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River portion of the Bay's drainage, most of the current 8.8 million acres of forest lands were shorn of their old-growth white pine and hemlock 70 to 90 years ago.

So rapacious was the cutting that one of America's most common woodland mammals, the white-tailed deer, scarcely existed in Pennsylvania in the early 1900s.

Where the great, brooding conifers disappeared, sun-loving maple, oak, ash and black cherry succeeded them. Now, that forest is peaking in commercial timber value -- one of the world's greatest concentrations of prime hardwood, valued in the billions of dollars.

For Pennsylvania, it is a welcome bounty, but also a huge challenge with implications for its Chesapeake neighbors downstream. The Susquehanna contributes half the bay's freshwater inflow.

Pennsylvania's powerful forest products industry is salivating at the prospects of greater forest cutting and has the state's blessing for a 40 percent increase in auctions from the huge public timberlands.

But can it not be done right this time -- while also protecting scenic vistas, water quality, growing recreational demands, species diversity, and ensuring a sustainable yield instead of unrestrained clear-cutting?

No easy task

During the next few years a committee of environmentalists, scientists, loggers and sportsmen is supposed to develop an ecologically sound timber management plan for millions of acres.

It won't be easy. Environmentalists are chagrined that the state agreed upfront to sizable increases in cutting.

And underlying all the hoopla over what grows in the forests is a spreading concern over what does not.

Across huge acreages, there are no seedlings, no regeneration.

There are many causes for this, as varied as acid rain and diseases. But the prime culprit is the deer, which rebounded more impressively than the trees. Pennsylvania has an estimated 1 million of them, and they love to eat young hardwoods.

"Deer have changed the whole ecology of Pennsylvania," says David Marquis, a retired forestry expert who for decades studied their impact on the 500,000-acre Allegheny National Forest.

The forest industry contends deer are its "No. 1 problem," but many sportsmen feel there is no such thing as too many deer and fight any reductions in the herd.

Thus, as never before in our lifetimes, Penn's Woods is full of economic promise and environmental challenge.

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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