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Bay Watershed Forest Cover

In the 1600s, forests covered 95 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. According to high-resolution land cover data collected in 2013 and 2014, just 57 percent of the watershed—about 24 million acres—is forested.





September 09, 2011

Healthy forests clean our air and water, support industries and economies, and provide us with a place to relax. Craig Highfield, Forestry for the Bay Program Manager, explains how a healthy forest works and why they are so important to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Importance

Forests are crucial to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Forests protect clean air and water, provide habitat to wildlife, store carbon, control floods and support the region’s economy. But human activities have reduced tree cover and fragmented the forests that still exist. Indeed, almost all of the forest land in the region has been cut at one time or another and ‘virgin’ forests that have never been cut exist only in small, isolated quantities. While many of the forests that were cleared in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for farmland, timber and fuel were allowed to regrow, forests cleared for development in recent decades is considered a permanent loss. When forests are destroyed and fragmented by development, their ecological services and economic benefits are lost. Conserving and expanding forest cover is a critical, cost-effective way to reduce pollution and restore the Bay.

Goal

In 2006, the Chesapeake Bay Program formally recognized the importance of retaining, expanding and sustainably managing forests. In 2007, its forest conservation initiative outlined the steps partners would take to maximize forest cover in the watershed. In 2014, it adopted several goals that will directly contribute to forest cover:

  • To protect and restore 900 miles of streamside trees and shrubs each year until 70 percent of the riparian areas in the watershed are forested
  • To expand urban tree canopy by 2,400 acres by 2025
  • To protect an additional 695,000 acres of forest land from development by 2025
  • To work with local governments to reduce the rate of conversion of forests (as well as farms and wetlands)

Science shows that a healthy watershed should be at least 70 percent forested. Because the Chesapeake Bay watershed faces continued pollution from agriculture and urban development, it is likely that more than 70 percent of the watershed should be forested if this sensitive ecosystem is to remain healthy.

Long-term trend (1650-2014)

In the 1600s, forests covered 95 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. According to high-resolution land cover data collected in 2013 and 2014, just 57 percent of the watershed—about 24 million acres—is forested.

While many of the forests that were cleared in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for farmland, timber and fuel were allowed to regrow, forests cleared for development in recent decades is considered a permanent loss.

Short-term trend (1990-2014)

Over the last two and a half decades, the watershed has experienced a high rate of forest loss. Between 1990 and 2005, the watershed lost an estimated 100 acres of forest land each day. While this rate fell between 2006 and 2014 to an estimated 70 acres per day, this rate is still unsustainable.

It is possible forest loss slowed because of the economic slump and resulting drop in development. Forest loss could slow further if communities enact protective zoning laws. However, forest loss could increase if developers are offered building incentives.

While data collected in 2013 and 2014 indicate a slightly higher percentage of forest cover in the region than data collected in 2011 (57 percent versus 55 percent), this change should not be seen as an increase in forest cover. The high-resolution land cover data that informed our most recent estimate of forest cover is a different set of data than what informed our 2011 estimate, and comparisons between the data cannot be made. In the future, more accurate land cover data will provide a better picture of forest cover trends.

Additional Information

Conserving quality forests

Forest quality could be as important to the health of the Chesapeake Bay as forest quantity. Several factors influence the quality of forest habitat:

  • Proximity to water
  • Species diversity
  • Ecosystem resilience
  • Habitat fragmentation
  • Economic viability

According to The State of Chesapeake Forests, development threatens 45 percent of the watershed’s network of forests and wetlands and 31 percent of the forests that are the most valuable when it comes to water quality protection.

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