By Greg Latshaw
Staff Writer - Delmarvanow.com
SALISBURY -- Seeking to end the slow attrition of Maryland's woodlands, state foresters are calling on lawmakers to adopt a no net loss policy by 2010.
A task force of landowners, local government officials and the building community, which includes Wicomico County Councilman Bill McCain, is studying the issue and met Friday in Annapolis.
The goal is to halt a march by the suburbs of Washington, Baltimore and in other parts of the state that is claiming about 8,600 acres of forest each year, said Steven Koehn, director of the Maryland Forest Service. He said it would be the first policy of its kind in the country and is needed because 41 percent of Maryland's land is forested.
But a no net loss law, which lead proponent Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's County, said he wants passed in the January legislative session, must not disturb the rights of the building industry, Koehn said. A law would also need land to plant new trees, when acres are displaced by new housing developments -- a concern to some in the farming industry.
Another question: What number of forested acres should be used as a baseline for the no net loss policy?
"All the issues, we can overcome," Pinsky said. Action should be taken immediately because "once you lose forests, you generally never recover it," he said.
Trees are an environmental juggernaut when it comes to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, studies show. Their roots absorb polluted water otherwise headed for the bay and stabilize stream banks. Their leaves act as air filters for harmful gases, and trees are natural habitats for wildlife.
In December 2007, the Chesapeake Executive Council, which includes the governors of the six watershed states, agreed to permanently protect 695,000 acres of forest by 2020. Maryland committed to setting aside 96,000 acres by 2012 and 250,000 acres by 2020 -- which is about half of the forest land protected now.
Katie Maloney, executive vice president of the Maryland State Builders Association in Annapolis, said a no net loss policy shouldn't add costs to builders. Her organization would oppose a policy that decreased how many houses could be built in a project, she said.
The Maryland Farm Bureau would favor any policy that protects forest, but a concern is if government incentives would push more trees onto farm land now in production, said Val Connelly, director of government relations.
She used the example of a landowner who leases land to farmers. If a government program would pay the landowner more to plant trees there, that could potentially wipe out farmland.
"Our business is to make sure that people can grow crops in the future in Maryland," she said.
McCain, an outdoorsman who owns a real estate appraisal firm and 400 acres of land on three Lower Shore farms, is the only Eastern Shore representative on the task force.
"The Eastern Shore's concerns and issues are vastly different from those of Montgomery and Prince George's counties," McCain said. "Ours are protecting the forest timber industry and agriculture."
The Eastern Shore's timber industry is unlikely to be affected, McCain said, because their land is classified as forest acres.