Tax­pay­ers fund what na­ture does for free

Southern Maryland News - - Community Forum - Al­i­son Prost, Annapolis The writer is Mary­land ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion.

Charles County tax­pay­ers are spend­ing mil­lions to re­duce a type of water pol­lu­tion that forests fil­ter for free. But wood­lands are be­ing cut down in the county. The more forests the county loses, the more money res­i­dents might have to pay.

That’s just the mon­e­tary dam­age. There’s also res­i­dents’ health to con­sider, lost wildlife habi­tat, and the in­tan­gi­ble loss to our spir­its when forests are bull­dozed for shop­ping cen­ters, sub­di­vi­sions, and other projects. This is not rhetoric. It’s math. Forests are one of our best de­fenses against pol­luted runoff. That’s rain that washes off the land­scape and into nearby creeks. Forests soak up and fil­ter out pol­lu­tants from the runoff. They are gi­ant sponges. A sci­en­tist with the Mary­land Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources (DNR) last year es­ti­mated that forests in Charles County pro­vide $371 mil­lion worth of runoff clean­ing ser­vices per year.

But nearly 190 acres of for­est are lost to de­vel­op­ment each year in the county, ac­cord­ing to county re­ports. Those same acres would fil­ter mil­lions of gal­lons of pol­luted runoff in a sum­mer storm.

It gets worse. Pave a for­est and you not only elim­i­nate the gi­ant green sponge, you cre­ate a hard fun­nel for weed killer, petroleum prod­ucts, and other con­tam­i­nants to flush into nearby creeks and rivers. The vol­ume and speed of the flush erodes creek banks, floods down­stream ar­eas, and causes other prob­lems. Runoff con­trols in­stalled dur­ing de­vel­op­ment can’t fully re­place a for­est, and are of­ten over­whelmed in a heavy storm.

The more forests are paved the more tax­pay­ers are asked to fund man-made clean-up projects that forests used to do for free. The county es­ti­mates it will spend about $73 mil­lion in a fiveyear pe­riod to re­duce pol­luted runoff from a frac­tion of ex­ist­ing de­vel­op­ment, ac­cord­ing to its Fi­nan­cial As­sur­ance Plan. DNR notes on its web­site that for­est de­struc­tion in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. -Bal­ti­more area since the early 1970s has pro­duced a 19 per­cent in­crease in pol­luted runoff at a cost of over $1 bil­lion.

Re­duc­ing pol­luted runoff is only one ben­e­fit of a for­est. Wood­lands also pro­duce oxy­gen, help recharge ground­wa­ter, se­quester car­bon (which eases cli­mate change), and pro­vide a home to an­i­mals, among other ben­e­fits. The re­port last year by DNR con­cluded that the value of all these ser­vices from Charles County’s forests and wet­lands is $577 mil­lion per year.

A bill in the Mary­land Gen­eral Assem­bly would help save the

county’s most valu­able forests, and also likely save money in the process. SB 610/HB 766 would up­date the state’s For­est Conser va­tion Act (FCA).

The bill does not at­tempt to stop de­vel­op­ment. It bet­ter pro­tects our best forests, the ones that will pro­vide us the most ser­vices. In many cases de­vel­op­ers can work around those forests by sim­ply grad­ing smarter, not clear-cut­ting a tract be­cause it’s eas­ier and less ex­pen­sive. We have seen projects where de­vel­op­ers clear and grade care­fully, and still are able to build vi­able projects. It can be done.

The FCA was en­acted in 1991 to pro­tect forests from de­vel­op­ment pres­sure to the max­i­mum de­gree pos­si­ble. In the years since, the FCA has done sig­nif­i­cant good. But nu­mer­ous blue-rib­bon com­mis­sions and re­ports have also found it flawed. The most re­cent study by the UMD Col­lege of Agri­cul­ture & Nat­u­ral Re­sources con­cluded

the FCA has slowed the loss of some forests, but ac­tu­ally en­abled the clear­ing of “pri­or­ity” forests that ben­e­fit us the most.

A few pre­cise changes in the FCA can make all the dif­fer­ence: bet­ter de­fine what con­sti­tutes a “pri­or­ity” for­est that should be most pro­tected; bet­ter clar­ify jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for clear­ing pri­or­ity forests; and re­quire one acre of re­plant­ing for each acre of pri­or­ity for­est whose clear­ance can’t be avoided, to name a few im­prove­ments. The leg­is­la­tion does that.

Years ago, The Lo­rax spoke up for the trees in Dr. Seuss’s chil­dren’s book of the same name. In the last nine years alone Charles County has lost more than 1,700 acres of forests to de­vel­op­ment. Let’s lis­ten to the Lo­rax. And to fis­cal con­ser­va­tivism. Let’s im­prove the FCA.

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