Forests are critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Large stands of trees can protect clean water and air, provide habitat to wildlife and support the region’s economy. But human activities have altered the watershed’s forests, reducing tree cover and fragmenting forests that still exist. Conserving and expanding forest cover is a critical, cost-effective way to reduce pollution and restore the Bay.
Forests are critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Large stands of trees perform ecological functions that can benefit all plants and animals, from cleaning our water and air to creating valuable habitat.
Forests act like giant sponges, keeping our rivers and streams clean and protecting our drinking water. Forests capture rainfall, trap polluted runoff and stabilize soils that might otherwise wash into waterways.
Through a process known as attenuation, tree roots and leaves and forest soils can absorb and trap the pollutants in our air.
Trees also produce the oxygen we breathe.
Forests provide food, shelter, nesting sites and safe migration paths for critters in the water and on land.
Forests contribute billions of dollars each year to the region’s economy. Forests support the region’s economy by:
Forestry is the second largest industry in Pennsylvania and Virginia and the fifth largest in Maryland. The forest industry supports many of the region’s small cities and towns, and provides 140,000 jobs, $6 billion in income and $22 billion in industry output to the Bay watershed’s economy each year.
Forests provide us with places where we can reflect and experience natural beauty and solitude. Forests also foster outdoor recreation, through activities like hiking, biking, camping and bird-watching.
A healthy forest is a complex community of plants, animals and soil. Healthy forests contain multiple layers of vegetation, each of which performs a unique function. This diversity of structure allows forests to protect clean water and provide wildlife with a range of critical habitats.
Human activities—including sprawling development and the introduction of invasive species—have altered the composition of forests across the Chesapeake Bay watershed, reducing tree cover and fragmenting those forests that still exist.
When Europeans arrived to the Bay region in the seventeenth century, they discovered diverse forests that stretched across 95 percent of the watershed. European settlers viewed the removal of these forests as integral to economic development, and European settlement had dramatic and long-lasting effects on the region’s forests and water quality. By the late 1800s, 40 to 50 percent of the watershed’s forests had been cleared of trees, as land was repurposed for agriculture and trees were cut down for fuel, fencing and timber. Throughout the twentieth century, “new” forests grew up on abandoned farmland. But our forests are now more homogenous in age, size and species composition than before Europeans settled the region.
Between 1982 and 1997, the Bay watershed lost more than 750,000 acres of forestland to development—a rate of about 100 acres per day. As trees have been replaced with roads, buildings, farms and houses, 60 percent of the watershed’s forests have been divided into disconnected fragments. These fragmented forests are less resilient to disturbances and more prone to negative influences like wildfires and invasive species.
Parcelization describes the breakup of large land ownerships into smaller ones. Over the past decade, the number of family forest owners in the Bay watershed has increased by nearly 25 percent—a rate of about 23,000 new family forest owners per year. But close to 70 percent of all family forest owners hold less than 10 acres of land.
The parcelization of forests often corresponds with a decline in the percentage of forestland that is managed for wildlife, timber, recreation or other uses; this increases the risk of fragmentation and conversion to other land uses.
In forests across the watershed, white-tailed deer have become an increasing threat to forest health. As forests are fragmented, deer have found food on farms and in suburban gardens and safe refuges in areas where hunting is prohibited. But locally high deer populations can harm forest growth and alter forest composition, as deer eat large amounts of seedlings and young trees and selectively browse for food.
Invasive plants are harmful to forests for several reasons. Invasive plants:
Kudzu, English ivy and Japanese honeysuckle are three invasive plants that have become permanent residents of Chesapeake forests.
Invasive pests and diseases can also alter forest conditions. Gypsy moths, emerald ash borers, chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease and beech bark disease have all had long-term, devastating impacts on the region’s forests.
Retaining and expanding forests is a critical, cost-effective way to reduce pollution and restore the Bay. An investment in forests is an investment in clean water and air, and sustainable forestry will help address sprawling development, climate change and energy independence.
As part of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Chespeake Bay Program partners committed to two goals related to trees. The riparian forest buffer goal is to restore 900 miles per year of streamside forest buffers and conserve existing buffers until at least 70 percent of the areas along streams throughout the watershed are forested. The tree canopy goal is to expand urban tree canopy—the layer of trees covering the ground when viewed from above—by 2,400 acres by 2025, providing air quality, water quality and habitat benefits throughout the watershed.
For Chesapeake Bay restoration to be a success, we all must do our part. Our everyday actions can have a big impact on the Bay. By making simple changes in our lives, each one of us can take part in restoring the Bay and its rivers for future generations to enjoy.
To support forests in the Bay watershed, consider planting trees and shrubs to create more wildlife habitat. You can also choose and use native plants to support the plants and animals that have adapted to this region.
The ideal width, in feet, of a riparian forest buffer
Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay honored winners at annual Watershed Forum
Watershed states restored 64 miles of buffers along rivers, streams in 2015
Aerial photos show human impacts on the northern Chesapeake Bay
Forest Pools Preserve protects a spring phenomenon for frogs and salamanders
In the 1600s, forests covered 95 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In 2011, just 55 percent of the watershed was forested. This data will be updated in 2017.
Between 2014 and 2015, about 64 miles of forest buffers were planted along the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s rivers and streams. This is 7 percent of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s goal to plant 900 miles of forest buffers each year. It brings the total amount of forest buffers planted since 1996 to 8,216 miles.
Data collected between 2015 and 2016 show that, since 2010, approximately 936,639 acres of land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have been permanently protected from development. This marks an achievement of 47 percent of the land conservation goal adopted in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement and brings the total amount of protected land in the watershed to 8.74 million acres.
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.
Publication date: December 05, 2007 | Type of document: Directive | Download: Electronic Version
In 2006, the Chesapeake Executive Council recognized that retaining, expanding, and sustainably managing forest lands is essential to restoring a healthy Chesapeake Bay by signing Directive 06-01. This implementation document responds to…
Publication date: September 01, 2006 | Type of document: Report | Download: Electronic Version
This first-of-its-kind report synthesizes more than a decade's worth of data from public and private sources, highlights current forest conditions, forecasts future trends, and outlines key goals and strategies necessary to conserve and…
Publication date: June 01, 1998 | Type of document: Report | Download: Electronic Version
The purpose of this handbook is to provide professional land managers and planners with the latest information on the functions, design, establishment and management of riparian forest buffers.
Publication date: July 01, 1997 | Type of document: Report | Download: Electronic Version
A literature review was conducted to determine the effectiveness of forestry best management practices (BMPs) in reducing water quality impacts of forestry management operations within the Piedmont and Ridge-and-Valley of the Chesapeake Bay…
Publication date: August 01, 1996 | Type of document: Report | Download: Electronic Version
This publication is a collection of case-studies that highlight accomplishments of local governments and citizen organizations to recognize the importance of forests to their communities and to take action to retain and restore those…