by Dave Reinecke and Steve Koehn
Imagine managing an area the size of 58,172 football fields, separated into 238 tracts ranging from less than 50 to over 1,000 acres in size, and distributed across five different counties. Welcome to the Chesapeake Forest Lands (CFL) of Wicomico, Dorchester, Worcester, Somerset and Caroline Counties on Marylandís lower Eastern Shore. Despite its seemingly scattered nature, Chesapeake Forest Lands represent some of the last large segments of unbroken forest on a peninsula predominantly agricultural in nature.

The CFL include portions of 23 separate watersheds, many of which have been given a high priority for conservation under the Maryland Clean Water Action Plan. These often remote and unspoiled areas provide essential habitat for established populations of threatened and endangered species, including the Delmarva fox squirrel, bald eagle and some 150 other species that have been identified as rare, threatened or endangered. In addition, abundant populations of deer, turkey and waterfowl have traditionally presented a fantastic array of hunting opportunities.

Chesapeake Forest Lands as they exist today resulted from a unique partnership between the State of Maryland, The Conservation Fund (TCF), and the Hancock Timber Resources Group in response to a planned divestment by the former owner of the properties, the Chesapeake Forest Products Corporation. The acquisition was completed in 1999 when the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) purchased 28,237 acres of the properties and TCF, on behalf of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, purchased the remaining acreage to be transferred to the state at a later time.

In December 2000 the final 29,935 acres were officially transferred to the state under the purview of a 3-year contract with a private forestry firm to carry out day-to-day operations. The result is more than 58,000 acres of state-owned public forest, half of which is managed by a private firm that works with DNR forest managers to carry out a conservation-oriented sustainable forestry plan. This unusual arrangement has created new challenges and opportunities for the DNR Forest Service, and the lessons being learned may transfer well beyond these forests.

So why did the state and The Conservation Fund buy these lands? For many reasons, chief among them to protect Marylandís natural resources and to maintain the rural character, economy and heritage of the Eastern Shore. All totaled, the properties include more than 11,000 acres of wetlands and 53,000 acres of forests, important habitat for the federally endangered Delmarva fox squirrel. Wood from these forests is also invaluable to the Shoreís forest products industry, the regionís second largest, generating $349 million for the stateís economy while employing more than 2,000 people.

Preserving these lands goes a long way toward securing the regionís water quality. The CFL properties protect shoreline on five river systems and offer countless opportunities for wetland creation, streamside buffer enhancement, and restoration of native plant communities. They also provide the largest collection of properties for upland game on the Eastern Shore.

Still, this abundance of diverse natural resources presented a unique management challenge. The difficulty arose out of the fact that the Chesapeake Forest Lands are composed primarily of loblolly pine plantations, over 50 percent of which are less than 20 years old. Trees of merchantable age and diameter were virtually absent. Also absent were older mixed pine-hardwood forests that provide biological diversity. These two factors combined produced a short-term lack of timber harvest opportunities. Immediate management techniques called for a large thinning operation to prevent the dense young stands from developing stress-related insect and disease problems.

The preservation of these working forests translates into significant benefits for Marylanders. Their protection is critical to keeping the Shoreís beloved landscapes from being fragmented by development, supporting the rural economies through the proceeds of hunting and fishing revenues, and expanding opportunities for public access by making new areas available for outdoor activities like hunting, fishing, hiking, birding and canoeing.

A 10-person technical team was assembled to develop the Sustainable Forest Management Plan for the CFL properties, with oversight from a steering committee with representatives from DNR, The Conservation Fund, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the local forest industry. However, developing the plan came with its share of challenges: Time to develop the plan was relatively short; existing data lacked a complete stand-by-stand forest inventory; and only two of the five counties had a modern soil survey.
On the other hand, there were several favorable factors at play as well. Global Positioning System (GPS) based information that had been developed and maintained by the former owners complemented DNRís extensive data library. Also invaluable to the project were the foresters who had managed the land for the Chesapeake Forest Products Company and the extensive technical staff and resources available within DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The resulting management plan has been lauded as "visionary, comprehensive, and likely to meet its stated objectives of wildlife habitat protection, soil and water quality protection, special sites preservation, and healthy economic benefits" by the Advisory Panel commissioned to assess the plan and its initial implementation work. The plan contains an extensive resource assessment of the entire 58,000 acres, including attention to landscape and regional issues that are critical to the proper management of these lands.

Just as the Chesapeake Forest Lands are part of a vast ecosystem, their management is not clearly defined but carefully intertwined among staff from several DNR units. Wildlife and Heritage personnel are tasked with identifying and developing restoration projects, reporting and mapping potential Ecological Significant Areas (ESAs) and overseeing release programs for game and non-game species. Chesapeake and Coastal Watershed Service employees are charged with developing watershed improvement projects and assisting in the design of forest monitoring programs. Resource Planning experts and State Forest and Park Service staff are working to create Geographic Information System maps for public review and conducting deed research and boundary recovery; and the Natural Resources Police are on hand to enforce laws and regulations on the properties. Finally, Maryland Conservation Corps members assist in painting boundary lines, installing gates and coordinating trash removal.

Fulfilling the stateís goal of long-term sustainability for the Chesapeake Forest Project will depend on several factors. Clearly the most important difficult a photo of Mike Schofield, Manager of the Chesapeake Forest Projectchallenge is to implement the visionary Sustainable Forest Management Plan that will shape these forests into an economically viable resource. In the near term, this is made more difficult by the preponderance of young plantations producing a high proportion of lower-value pulpwood as they are thinned. Alternatively, thinning done by experienced contractors with modern equipment results in minor environmental or visual impacts while hastening development of large, healthy stands.

One of the most difficult management issues to be addressed during the formal planning process is achieving the proper balance between public hunting and leased hunting on the forests. The department is developing decision criteria to identify which tracts are best suited to these uses and continues to work with interested stakeholders to define a reasonable management approach.
Such challenges are common to public land management around the country, and Maryland is no exception. What may be exceptional, however, is the unique public-private partnership being tested here. It is hoped that this practical learning laboratory can incorporate both the flexibility and professionalism of private foresters as well as DNRís scientific capacities to maximize sustainable public benefits from these forests.

Dave Reinecke...
is the Eastern Regional Information and Education Specialist and Maryland Project Learning Tree Coordinator with the MD DNR Forest Service. He also provided the photos for this article.

Steve Koehn...
is the Director of the DNR Forest Service and contributed additional information for this article.

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