Monday, January 22, 2007

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — The six-state Chesapeake Bay watershed is losing forest land to development at a rate of 100 acres a day, according to a study by the USDA Forest Service and the Conservation Fund.

The groups advocate better management of family-owned woodlots, including selective timber harvesting, to help landowners cash in on their forests without selling to developers.

“Most landowners nowadays own the land for aesthetic enjoyment — just sort of the natural beauty of owning a wooded landscape,” said Eric S. Sprague, formerly of the private Conservation Fund. “If we can give them some way to derive an income off their land, they’re more likely to keep it for future generations.”

Mr. Sprague coordinated the study and is now with the District-based Pinchot Institute for Conservation, which is working with the states to implement the report’s recommendations.

The 16 strategies for forest conservation in the 114-page report also include land-use planning to reduce the loss and fragmentation of forests; tax breaks for paper mills and sawmills that are under financial pressure to sell their large forest holdings to investors; and encouraging woodland owners to get certification that their forests are being managed in an environmentally responsible manner.

Forests cover 24 million acres, or 58 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which spans nearly 65,000 square miles in Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District, according to the report. Forty-five percent of the forest habitat is vulnerable to development, and 60 percent is fragmented by roads, housing subdivisions, farms and other human uses, the study found.

About two-thirds of the forest land is owned by families. Their management strategies, or lack thereof, play an increasingly important role in the ecology and economy of the watershed, the study found.

“The owners of small parcels are not likely to manage their forests, and many do not even consider themselves forest owners,” the report states. “At a minimum, most landowners need professional advice.”

Unmanaged forests, especially small, fragmented parcels, tend to become less healthy and less productive as they age, said Karin Miller, executive director of the Maryland Forests Association, in Grantsville.

She said forest management doesn’t necessarily mean cutting trees. For example, a woodland can be managed for wildlife, Mrs. Miller said.

But “it means you’ve had someone out there who understands the resource, a professional forester who can help you identify your objectives and develop a way to meet” them, she said.

More than 136 million acres of forest land in North America, and more than 208 million worldwide, have been certified by third-party organizations as being managed in an environmentally responsible manner. The certification programs were started in the early 1990s to help counter public perceptions that logging hurts the environment.

Pennsylvania’s 2.1 million acres of state woodland is the largest tract of forest in North America certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Maryland has had nearly 58,000 acres certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. But private forest owners in Maryland have been less willing to participate in the programs, mainly because of the cost of certification, Mrs. Miller said.

“They pay for the process without getting an increase in any profit they get from their product,” she said.

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