“Celebrating Our Past, Creating Our Future.”

Longer ago than I care to admit, I was a teenager planning my college education. I wanted to be a forestry major. Studying trees and having a career in the woods were highly appealing.

In the 1950s, though, forestry programs were pretty much dominated by timber industry concerns. My dad was urged to “cut down the hardwoods and plant loblolly pine” on our Virginia farm. (He didn’t.) While I was in high school, my favorite stream was blanketed by silt from timber-cutting operations. I opted for a different career, but I have never lost my enthusiasm for forests. Today, happily, forests are back in my life and my career.

In the Chesapeake region, the modern forest products industry provides more than 140,000 jobs, $6 billion in income and a total industry output of $22 billion to the Bay watershed economy annually.

For the most part, today’s professional foresters use sustainable practices and are good stewards of this renewable resource. What’s more, the ecological services that forests provide result in an additional enormous financial windfall for the Bay region.

Forests are the best land cover for improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Trees capture, filter and retain water as well as absorb the excess nitrogen and phosphorus that plague the Bay. The capacity of forests to absorb and store runoff is almost 20 times greater than a parking lot and up to six times greater than a lawn. Chesapeake forests retain 85 percent of the airborne reactive nitrogen they receive. With as much as a third of the excess nitrogen load in the Bay coming from air pollution sources, this filtration function is vital.

If we could somehow restore all of the forest land that existed when Capt. John Smith arrived here 400 years ago, computer simulations tell us that we would see 1,700 percent less phosphorus, 450 percent less nitrogen, and 300 percent less sediment than current loadings, surpassing all of our pollution reduction goals by a wide margin. And we’d owe it all to trees.

We know that forests serve other key roles, too. They protect and filter the drinking water for 75 percent of the watershed’s residents. They moderate water temperature in streams, stabilize flood plains and protect streambanks. They reduce energy costs, provide countless recreational opportunities and increase property value. Just think of the expense if we had to build wastewater treatment facilities to remove all the nitrogen and phosphorus that our forests do for free. Or the costs of flood control structures if our forests weren’t effectively holding all that water.

A new breed of economists has teamed up with ecologists to start putting dollar figures on these “ecological services.” Economists estimate that Chesapeake forests provide at least $24 billion in ecological services. And that’s a value we gain every year.

Since 1982, though, more than 750,000 acres of Chesapeake forests have been lost to urban and suburban development.

Chesapeake forests provide enormous economic and ecological benefits. And yet we continue to lose them at an astonishing rate. How can we stop the losses and begin actually reforesting parts of the watershed?

The emerging answer—accounting for the full economic value of forests and using market mechanisms to protect them—is central to a new initiative called Forestry for the Bay Program. This collaborative approach for sustainable forestry combines the vast partnership network of the Bay Program with the technical expertise of public and private foresters and the coordinating efforts of the nonprofit Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

There are approximately 922,000 private forest landowners in the Bay watershed. Most of the parcels are relatively small—five to 20 acres—and many are prime targets for acquisition by developers.

By becoming Forestry for the Bay members, landowners will receive a free resource map of their land and be coached through a web-based planning process that will outline a forest management plan for their property. In addition, members will receive discounts on tree seedlings and many other benefits to help them manage and protect the forested areas on their property.

Importantly, this effort will also direct landowners to financial incentives to keep their forests intact. Tax programs, conservation easement opportunities and federal Farm Bill initiatives like the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program give forest owners an economic alternative to developers’ dollars.

Because of their water quality benefits, forests are also being viewed as an attractive investment by organizations that need to reduce existing nutrient and sediment loads. A wastewater treatment plant operator, for example, could pay a landowner an attractive fee to plant trees that have the same nutrient reduction effectiveness as an expensive treatment plant upgrade.

Similarly, a homebuilder may want to build a 100-acre development that destroys 50 acres of trees. To offset the resultant pollution increase, the developer might be required to pay a landowner elsewhere in the same watershed to plant and care for a new, 100-acre woodlot.

Clearly, creative ideas to conserve and expand Chesapeake forests are gaining acceptance. One of the most exciting concepts being developed by the new Forestry for the Bay Program is the notion of establishing a “Bay Bank.”

As markets become established, a centralized trading platform to bring buyers and suppliers together becomes necessary. That’s the idea behind the Bay Bank.

The Forestry for the Bay Program is developing an outreach strategy to sign up a significant number of the 922,000 private forest owners in the watershed who can can elect to become Bay Bank members. They will have access to the full range of market options based on their land base.

Perhaps they will expand their forest holdings by planting riparian buffers and selling conservation easements for five, 10 or 20 years to a local sewage treatment authority as a water quality improvement mechanism.

Downstream communities may want to invest in upstream forests as an effective and inexpensive form of flood control. Energy production companies may want to buy into the bank and pay for forests to capture their excess nitrogen emissions.

Individual landowners don’t have the wherewithal to negotiate these kinds of agreements. The Alliance or another nonprofit entity can manage the leases or other financial arrangements. Think of a credit union. It exists to provide financial services to its members. The Bay Bank would function similarly.

Regulators will want to make sure that standards are established and safeguards are built in. Again, this is a service function better provided by a member-supported bank than individual landowners try to negotiate privately.

Similarly, members might collectively enroll acres of their forests into a carbon sequestration program. The bank could then market the entire amount on the emerging Carbon Credit Exchange, paying members dividends based on their relative contributions.

Forests are finally being recognized for their extraordinary values and their multiple benefits. Today’s teens planning their educational and career futures, would do well to look at forestry.

It’s taken a long time, but the promise and excitement I envisioned as a rural Virginia teenager all those years ago are finally coming to pass. And at a time when we are losing 100 acres of Chesapeake forests a day, it’s not a moment too soon.


This article is reprinted from "Action! Notes from the Director's Chair", The Bay Journal, January 2007, with permission of The Bay Journal. Rebecca Hanmer is the director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office.