Our vanishing forest treasures

May 03, 2007|By Craig W. Culp

Just down the street and around the corner from my home is a little patch of paradise next to the Potomac River and the C&O Canal National Historic Park. Its sunny glades edge up to a clear, crawfish-filled creek that rushes around islands of perfect skipping stones. Its woods echo with the call of pileated woodpeckers and the bark of foxes. It is a place my family cherishes, and we visit often for picnicking, hiking, fishing or roasting marshmallows.

I'm hardly alone; millions of Americans enjoy spending time in these special places. But while we are enjoying this wonderful gift, we seldom think about how it came to be here for us - or what might have happened if the forces that preserved it hadn't done so. And this is no idle fear; according to the Forest Service, our nation loses about 250 football fields' worth of forests and open space every hour to development.

How did the recreation areas in and around our communities come to be? In many instances, they were paid for with money from two federal programs you've probably never heard of: the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the Forest Legacy Program.

The LWCF is authorized by Congress to receive up to $900 million annually from offshore drilling royalties paid by the oil and gas industry. Forest Legacy assists states in protecting environmentally sensitive, privately owned forestland by matching funds from private, state or local sources.

Despite being relatively obscure, the LWCF is the nation's premier land conservation program. It has helped support more than 40,000 projects to acquire open space for parklands or to develop outdoor recreation facilities. It also enhances the lives of many Marylanders every day at places such as Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Antietam National Battlefield, Assateague Island National Seashore, Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, Monocacy National Battlefield and the Patuxent Research Refuge.

Many thousands of visitors who visit Sandy Point State Park-Holly Beach Farm each year have no idea that a $2.2 million LWCF grant allowed the state to purchase more than 300 acres of land there, protecting critical waterfowl habitat and enhancing the popular state park.

The Forest Legacy Program provides funds to assist states in conserving and maintaining private forests threatened by inappropriate development. The program has helped to purchase or protect from development more than 1 million acres of forestland around the country.

In recent years, the Forest Legacy Program has been instrumental in purchasing two of three sections of the 1,964-acre Broad Creek property northwest of Havre de Grace along the Susquehanna River. One million dollars is needed from the Forest Legacy Program to acquire the last 400 acres of predominantly oak-hickory forest owned by the Baltimore Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Despite how essential these programs have become to so many citizens, they and the lands we all depend on for outdoor recreation are under assault from multiple fronts. Pressures for rapid development have increased state needs for conservation funds at the same time the Bush administration has deeply cut funding. From 2002 to 2006, funding for the LWCF has been slashed by more than 75 percent. For fiscal year 2008, the president has proposed further cuts, with a request for just $58 million, one of the lowest funding levels in the more than 40-year history of the program.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, from 1982 to 2001, 34 million acres of open space was converted to developed land. The agency predicts that if these trends continue, during the next 12 years, we will lose 64 million acres of open space - an area 10 times the size of Maryland. And the areas immediately surrounding some of our best places to hunt, camp, fish or picnic are seeing the fastest development.

A solution is to bring more of these threatened places into public ownership or to protect them from development through conservation easements. The LWCF and Forest Legacy Program exist solely to accomplish this goal.

More than 80 percent of the lands acquired in recent years lie within the boundaries of national parks, refuges, forests or recreation areas. These private "in-holdings" are among the most vulnerable to development. Buying up these critical parcels from willing private sellers helps keep our parks free of destructive and unwanted use or development.

Fortunately, the new Congress has an opportunity to reverse the deep funding cuts and address the loss of our nation's forests, open spaces and natural heritage by investing in the LWCF and the Forest Legacy Program. As Congress begins debating what to do about the president's woeful conservation budget over the next two weeks, now is the time to join the fight to preserve our last best places.

Craig W. Culp, a Baltimore native and Gaithersburg resident, is communications director for the Wilderness Society's Eastern Forest Program. His e-mail is craig_culp@tws.org.

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