Protecting state trees is a private concern

Conservation: With the state's shrinking woodlands mostly in private hands, individuals are encouraged to take a stand.

March 03, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Wrens dart overhead, moss grows below, and in between walk Georgia and Jim Eacker, looking with practiced eyes at their 22-year-old work in progress.

Their tulip poplars, so straight and tall, are budding. Their streambed is eroding and needs more attention. This is their Ellicott City forest, lovingly tended in the manner that parents care for teen-agers: Cut back the bad influences - vines, grass, thorny invasive bushes - and give the rest space to grow.

It's not a hobby. It's an exercise in citizenship.

The state and counties do not own the vast majority of forest land in Maryland. People like the Eackers do - and these private landowners hold the key to homes for wild animals, cleaner streams and better air.

"The future of Maryland forests does not depend on the government," said Jonathan Kays, a natural resources specialist for the Maryland Cooperative Extension. "What happens to the forest of Maryland depends on the individual decisions of 130,000 people."

More than 1.8 million acres of woods belong to these landowners, nearly 80 percent of the state's forested ground - split into sections averaging 14 acres.

But Maryland's sweeping private forest cover is falling.

Between 1985 and 1997, the portion of the state covered by woodlands fell 7 percent, according to the Maryland Forestry Task Force. In Howard County, the drop was 17 percent.

State officials worry that many of the remaining trees are not as healthy as they could be because people assume that the best thing for nature is to be left alone.

To help save fragments of woodlands, the state Department of Natural Resources offers owners of forested parcels as small as 5 acres a substantial reduction in their property taxes, if they work out a management plan and agree to care for the woods for 15 years.

Participants typically get their property assessed for taxes at $100 to $150 an acre - far below the development value of the land.

"Money does grow on trees," joked Mario Mancini, whose 9-acre woodland property in Parkton was assessed at more than $5,700 an acre in parts before he created his forest. "We've been rewarded for doing something we should have been doing in the first place."

More than 1,300 landowners with 98,314 acres of Maryland forest have enrolled in that conservation program.

Kays is hoping the state incentives will encourage people to plant more trees instead of removing them.

Forests often require more work than people think, he said. Who would guess that grass and seedlings are hardened enemies in the war for water, vines can topple even the mightiest of oaks and cutting trees selectively often keeps a woods vibrant?

Kays has little chance of bringing this message to everyone. So he leverages limited resources. Every year, he organizes the Coverts Project, an expenses-paid training for 30 forest owners. In exchange, they are asked to spread the word to others that Mother Nature might indeed know best, but she can also use a little help.

For each forest, that means something different.

Dave Diseroad spent weeks on his 35 acres in Manchester getting rid of multiflora rose, an invader shrub and the bane of forest caretakers because it grows quickly and thickly. He also had a forester cut down some of the taller trees to give the smaller ones a chance - and used the proceeds from the timber sale to buy equipment to care for his woods. The remaining firewood heats his house.

When Karl Mech bought 40 acres near his house in eastern Baltimore County two decades ago, fewer than half had trees. Now his forest covers three quarters of the Baldwin property. He knows it so well from frequent nurturing that he can sense subtle changes on each visit.

Mario and Joan Mancini's backyard woodland in Parkton is nearly all their doing. Less than three years after planting 2,400 seedlings, they are proud to report that the little guys are 4 feet tall.

"We've been bringing the forest back," said Mario Mancini, 52.

The Eackers had a ready-made woods when they moved onto their 15-acre Ellicott City property in 1980. A generous space surrounded by subdivisions, it's completely shielded from the outside when everything bursts into leaf.

In winter, the hardwood trees offer a stark beauty, stripped of decoration and reaching at least 30 feet into the sky. Birds that would be hidden flit into view and join in joyous chorus. A pond that stretches for at least an acre sparkles below them, reflecting through ripples the dancing images of maples.

The air smells green.

Georgia Eacker could feel spring trying to poke through as she strolled along a velvety trail last week, a bird identification book under one arm. She pointed out woodpeckers and ducks, skunk cabbage and ferns. She tidied up reflexively, moving a fallen twig to the base of a nearby tree.

Near the stream, she tugged at some Japanese honeysuckle - an invasive plant trying to usurp space. More work to be done. Her forest needs rescuing.

"Look at the way it twines around there," she said in frustration.

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