Volume 12, Issue 6 ~ February 5-11, 2004

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Chesapeake Outdoors ~ by C. D. Dollar

Listen to the Trees

Change is inevitable. Just outside the community where I grew up was a several hundred-acre horse farm where, in the 1950s, my father earned pocket money working the stables. Later, we kids rode the trails, and my sister kept her horse there. By the early 1980s, the gentle slopes of the paddocks and the paths lined with poplars and oaks were obliterated by bulldozers. New houses shot up, stacked upon each other like cordwood, and Japanese maples replaced old trees. As a teenager at the time, I gave the sea of change scant thought.

Watershed wide, this scene is being repeated daily. Farms, wetlands and forests are being converted to office buildings, parking lots and housing developments at warp speed. Even the recent economic slowdown couldn’t put the brakes on development in the Baltimore-Washington region, which remains one of the fastest-growing areas in the country.

Today, trees cover little more than 50 percent of land in the Chesapeake basin, compared to more than 90 percent before colonial settlement. True, recent forested buffer restoration is encouraging: 2,283 miles since 1996. But money is tight, and many programs have been cut. And the Chesapeake Bay Program’s new goal of 10,000 miles by 2010 is just a fraction of the minimum 30,000 additional miles experts say is necessary to restore streams and to achieve Bay restoration goals.

Scientists have shown that forested wetlands can remove approximately 80 percent of the phosphorous and 90 percent of the nitrogen from water. Loss of natural buffers has taken its toll as too much nitrogen flows unabated into waterways, adding more fuel for killer algal blooms that were so prevalent last summer. Subsequently, the impaired water has also added to the decline of, and hindered the restoration of marine species and aquatic habitats.

Assaults on buffers continue. Last July, Maryland’s highest court said landowner Edwin Lewis could build a hunting lodge and six other outbuildings on a Nanticoke River island despite lacking proper permits. The state went to court, charging he egregiously violated the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area law, which was specifically enacted more than 20 years ago to save buffers and to reduce runoff.

Closer to home, in response to intense and often justified criticism for failing to protect its fragile shoreline from development, Anne Arundel County Council last fall passed a stronger Critical Area ordinance. But the effectiveness of the new process is already being debated. Specifically at issue is a plan to build 16 houses on Homeport Farm, which includes one mile of unspoiled shoreline on Church Creek, a tributary of the South River.

Led by the South River Federation, detractors say the project would compromise water quality. The property has steep slopes, making the creek especially vulnerable to sediment pollution if the large hardwoods and other buffers are cut. What’s more they argue, the county granted permission outside the framework of its own new Growth Allocation Process. The farm had previously been designated as a Resource Conservation Area.

“The law is clear: projects that receive a growth allocation from the county must be 50 percent completed within three years or the land reverts back to RCA,” said the Federation’s Kincey Potter.

“No actual development has taken place,” she added, “so we’re asking a judge to rule to designate the land as RCA and, therefore the development cannot take place.”

In our haste to progress, many have ignored the Lorax’s cautionary tale depicting his fight to save the Truffula Forest from environmental destruction by the ominous Once-ler. Dr. Suess should be enough warning that collectively we’re on a path to irreversibly degrade the very natural resources that drew people to the water’s edge in the first place.

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Last updated February 5, 2004 @ 12:05am.