Building the forest for the trees

June 03, 2007|By Adele Evans | Adele Evans,Special to The Sun

Back in 1981, when longtime forester Len Wrabel and his wife, Marikay, moved into their Westminster home, it sat on an empty cornfield.

Not uncommon for Carroll County in those days. After all, it has more than a century's history of farming.

But today, the Wrabels, who run an environmental consulting service, have 55 species of native trees growing on their 2.5 acres, and they've planted 900 additional trees on a neighbor's property.

They are one of many families, developers and forestry officials who are trying to bulk up Carroll County's 70,000 acres of forests for the good of their own water and that of the Chesapeake Bay, polluted by chemical runoff that would otherwise be stopped by trees.

"We were the third county from the bottom in terms of forest land conserved," said Vicki Luther, county forestry official. "Now we're near the top."

Forests covered 95 percent of Maryland in Colonial times. Today, only 42 percent of Maryland remains forested, and trees are often coming down faster than they're being planted.

Although recent statistics from the Department of Natural Resources say Maryland is losing an estimated 10,000 acres per year to development, Carroll County is turning things around with its stringent forest conservation ordinance and forest banking program.

Today, Carroll County has an 82 percent forest retention rate, compared with the state's 65 percent. That means 82 percent of existing forest has been retained on construction sites during development while the rest has been cleared for new building. About 25 percent of the county's total land remains forested today, according to statistics. "Carroll County is doing quite well with its plan," said Marian Honeczy, state forest conservation program coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources.

Carroll County developed its forest preservation and conservation laws in 1992, building on a sweeping state forest conservation act passed in 1991. Today, anyone in Carroll County who develops a parcel of county land 40,000 square feet or larger must follow the forestry ordinance.

The ordinance takes a tiered approach - the toughest laws affecting agricultural lands.

If there are no trees, or very few trees, on the construction site , local law says business and industrial sites must still have 15 percent of their property forested; residential and agricultural property must have 20 percent.

Depending on the size and type of tree the builder chooses, "forest" can be defined as 100 to 700 trees per acre, Luther said.

That means even if the land is empty to begin with, builders have to plant seedlings to bump up the numbers to the required percentages.

If, however, there are enough trees to begin with, the builder can put that existing forest into a permanent "easement," or a promise that they won't be cut down in the future - ever.

A second tier of the ordinance takes effect if builders clear forest from the site. For every tree removed, builders have to plant a new one. Developers must submit a detailed forest conservation plan to show where construction will be, which trees will be kept on the site and which trees will be cleared.

Of the forest that's cleared, the land developer must also specify where the trees will be replanted.

The most desirable replanting areas are near streams, floodplains and wetlands. These sensitive areas need trees to soak up chemical and nutrient runoff before it reaches the streams - and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

The last tier of the law impacts agricultural land that's being developed. Carroll County requires a 2-to-1 tree replacement ratio on agricultural land that is sold for development.

Builders on those sites get their first 20,000 square feet of clearing "free," with no required replanting. They also get from 20,000 to 25,000 square feet at the 1-to-1 rate.

Above 25,000 square feet, they must replant two new trees for every one cut.

"We're trying to preserve land already zoned in agriculture," Luther said. "The 2-to-1 replacement rule is a preservation measure."

Maryland's forests cover 2.5 million acres. Department of Natural Resources officials say a quarter of that forest is owned by local and state governments. The rest is privately owned. And that's a big concern.

"People are more mobile. They move. There's a lot of turnover in the land. To manage a forest is a long-term commitment," said Karin Miller, director of the Maryland Forests Association in Grantsville, a leading association of forest professionals that works closely with state and local governments on conservation legislation.

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