After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

Plant a Tree, Save the Bay

(Posted by Tom Horton)

Even us hard core greenies are not immune to indulging in a little “retail therapy”; so I celebrated Black Friday by heading to my local plant nursery, where nothing’s made in China and there were no lines.

There were no doorbuster sales, but they do participate in Maryland’s current program to encourage individuals to plant 50,000 trees, giving an excellent discount on any tree costing more then fifty bucks (scroll to the bottom and print as many $25 coupons as you like, each one good for one tree).

I picked up a couple black gums. Nyssa silvatica, nymph of the woods, the black gum, or tupelo, is a fine native species that bears fruit beloved of birds, displays fantastic red-orange fall color, and is not picky about soil type or location.

The gums join more than 120 trees and shrubs I’ve squeezed into my small, eighth of an acre yard in Salisbury during the last couple years. Soon, this place will become the third lawn I’ve wiped out in my home-owning career.

Planting trees has been more than balm for my All-American shopping urges. Years ago I bought into a neighborhood that was attractive because of its many big old trees. I was soon dismayed by how many neighbors seemed dedicated to taking down their trees, mostly perfectly healthy ones.

Every time that happened, I tried to plant one more in my own yard. I came to see it in a larger sense as a way to keep one’s spirits up in a world that seems bent on degrading its natural resources. As the world around me became deforested, my own spot became ever greener, an island of hope in a lake of pessimism.

In another place and another time I planted copiously during the years a loved one was dying of cancer. I could not reverse her disease, but I could in a way nurture life all around us.

Personal regreening has many broader salutary impacts. “There are no lazy forests,” says Keith Ross, a Massachusetts landuse consultant who is working to keep at least 70 per cent of all New England permanently in tree cover.

What he means is that by just sitting there, forests are providing a host of so-called ecosystem services: sopping up the carbon that promotes climate change, and the airborne nitrogen that is a major pollutant of the Chesapeake; also providing wildlife habitat, filtering dirty stormwater runoff, recharging drinking water aquifers, and offering recreational enjoyment from hunting and hiking to birdwatching and botanizing.

The forests that cover nearly 60 percent of the Chesapeake’s 64,000 square mile watershed have been valued conservatively at some $24 billion a year for such ecological benefits. Forests don’t send us a bill for such services, and the method Maryland and the nation use to tote up economic progress doesn’t factor in these immense natural values either—or subtract them when we pave them over.

Such flawed accounting is a key reason we’re losing our forests around the Chesapeake at a rate of about a hundred acres a day, an acre being approximately the size of a football field. Those numbers, as well as the near-60 percent forest coverage of the six state watershed, actually make the picture seem rosier than it is.

That’s because in the regions closest to the Bay, where most of its people live, forest loss is much higher and forest coverage much lower; and these areas are precisely where forest is most needed to serve recreational and clean water needs.

There are a number of good programs within the larger Chesapeake restoration to restore and protect forests, but we have no overarching goal, not even a vision of no net loss, of a bottom line for forest coverage beyond which we will not go. Without that, further losses seem inevitable as population grows.

New England might provide a guide. Led by researchers at Harvard, all the states of the region between Long Island and Canada have articulated a vision that calls for protecting at least 70 percent of New England in forests forever. Current forest coverage is close to 80 percent.

The Wildlands and Woodlands report issued in May 2010 shows how this can be done while providing room for future development along with equity for private forest holders.

New England’s solutions will not all be directly translatable to the Chesapeake watershed, but a similar vision for holding the line on forests is long overdue here.

Suggested further reading:  Wildlands and Woodlands, A Vision for The New England Forests (Harvard University Press); The State of Chesapeake Forests (The Conservation Fund, September 2006).

Posted by Tom Horton

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