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Halting the Decline of the Chesapeake Bay's Forests

September 2000

Though forests are the primary land cover in the Chesapeake Bay states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, recent data show that many parts of the Chesapeake region have lost substantial forestland.

“The forests closest to the Bay and in the region’s metropolitan areas are on the path of continued loss and fragmentation,” said Senior Attorney James M. McElfish. He and Senior Scientist Jessica Bennett Wilkinson are authors of Forests for the Bay, a new ELI study that presents several strategies to reverse this disturbing trend. “Further loss and fragmentation of these forestlands could irreversibly damage the Bay’s watershed and harm the region’s economy.”

Fortunately, policymakers are beginning to recognize the significant influence forestlands have on maintaining water and air quality, biological resources, economic productivity, and local residents’ quality of life. In June of this year, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District of Columbia, the intergovernmental Chesapeake Bay Commission, and several federal agencies have made a new commitment to “promote the expansion and connection of contiguous forests” in the Bay watershed by signing the Chesapeake Bay Agreement. Forests for the Bay is designed to show policymakers how to slow this decline — a problem made more difficult because eighty percent of this forestland is privately owned.

McElfish and Wilkinson show how changes in state tax laws, land acquisition strategies, and development regulations can help to preserve the region’s forest base. They advocate adoption of tax breaks to assist private woodland owners and targeting of agricultural preservation programs to include key forestlands. Tax breaks can make timber management, harvesting, and regeneration more attractive to private landowners than subdividing parcels for development. Establishing dedicated funding sources to acquire conservation easements on private forestlands would further encourage woodland conservation. Finally, “smart growth” policies could be targeted to preserve critical forestlands.

“Forest conservation goals are consistent with continued economic growth, but the right legal mechanisms must be put in place,” McElfish said. “This study shows what needs to be done and presents a plan of action that should be attractive to the region’s citizens, businesses, and governments.”

Forests for the Bay was funded by the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, with additional funding from the Chesapeake Bay Commission, EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Forests for the Bay can be downloaded for free or ordered by calling (800) 433-5120 or sending an email to orders@eli.org. For press copies, please contact or pressrequest@eli.org.