Study: Maintaining forests vital to health of Chesapeake Bay

Virginia and Pennsylvania have completed a two-tier analysis of the economic benefits of meeting the Chesapeake Bay clean-up goals through the retention of forestland.

virginia department of forestryThe effort first tested alternative growth scenarios to see the impact of retaining more forestland.  The results prove the validity of models that will help localities implement policy changes and financial incentives to better protect the Chesapeake Bay. This was followed-up by extensive discussions over the past year with local officials and other stakeholders and the project’s sponsors: the Department of Forestry and the Rappahannock River Basin Commission in Virginia, and, in Pennsylvania, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, to determine how to make it happen.

The Healthy Watersheds/Forest Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) project final findings are being released today.  The report commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership concludes that retaining forests as a strategy to meet Chesapeake Bay goals is both environmentally and economically attractive to localities of all sizes, both rural and urban, and provides extensive findings and recommendations from local officials on policy and incentive options to meet both water quality and economic development objectives.

The two-year partnership project and analysis was conducted in Virginia and Pennsylvania because they make up the two largest land jurisdictions in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, which extends from New York to Virginia.  Phase-One was completed in 2016 and involved a portion of the Bay watershed in the Rappahannock River Basin of Virginia.  Using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s TMDL model, maintaining forestland in just this portion of Virginia would mean possible savings to those in the five localities of as much as $125 million between now and the year 2025.  In the just completed Phase-Two, Pennsylvania replicated Virginia’s model on a smaller scale and concluded that tens of millions of dollars could be saved in just those jurisdictions in its study area.

Implementing the report’s findings and recommendations across the entire Chesapeake Bay Watershed could generate billions of dollars of savings, the study’s authors concluded.

Virginia Del. M. Keith Hodges, chair of the Rappahannock River Basin Commission, said, “We are very excited to have this report available.  The project team spoke with hundreds of stakeholders across the basin in an effort to have a bottom-up discussion of how to promote and facilitate enhanced conservation of existing forests.  We know that forests are important to water quality and that conservation of existing high-value tree cover helps us meet our Chesapeake Bay TMDL goals.  Learning from local stakeholders how to encourage more forest conservation is overdue.”

The feedback gathered from hundreds of rural, urban and suburban partners and localities in Virginia and Pennsylvania captured the challenges, obstacles and opportunities associated with implementing solutions to meet the TMDL goals in the Bay Watershed.  This helped inform the recommendations, which include an array of flexible options and tools that localities can use to address their specific economic and environmental needs and objectives.  These tools include maintaining existing forestland, TMDL credits to retain forestland as well as stormwater management incentives – necessary options to help localities meet their water quality requirements while also recognizing their needs for economic growth.

Coupling rural localities that have healthy forestland with urban areas needing help meeting the TMDL requirements is beneficial for both localities, the study says.  The rural areas, which are already meeting their requirements, often need financial assistance for other things like schools and infrastructure.  And urbanized areas would be able to make use of a credit trading strategy.  A multi-pronged approach would help avoid “sacrifice zones” in this process.

State Forester of Virginia Bettina Ring said, “The value of this report rests in its quantifiable conclusion that keeping forests as forest results in economic success for localities regardless of whether they are rural, urban or suburban.  People may instinctively know that trees are good and that the Chesapeake Bay is important, but now we have conclusive data that connect the dots between those resources and findings that compute the monetary benefits, thereby validating those beliefs.”

With the study concluded and the model validated, the next step in both Commonwealths is to address the challenges and obstacles detailed in the final report, which is available at www.dof.virginia.gov and at rrbcnews.wordpress.com.


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