Trees and the Chesapeake Bay

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

There was a scuffle on this blog a few days ago over the production of more hardwood seedlings by the Department of Forestry. There were some who questioned the efficacy of planting more trees in the attempt to mitigate climate change. Others questioned why the state should be subsidizing the production of seedlings in the first place.

Being an ardent fan of trees, I was intrigued, and I contacted the Department of Forestry to get some more background on the program. After getting the agency’s answers to my questions, I realized there is a bigger issue at play.

The bigger issue is the protection and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. The health of the Bay is affected by point source pollution and nonpoint source pollution. We have been able to deal fairly effectively with point source pollution, such as the discharges from wastewater treatment plants. Nonpoint source pollution is much trickier. Agricultural runoff and erosion constitute a large portion of the nonpoint source pollution affecting the Bay.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, “Of the many best management practices that improve water quality and habitat in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the most effective way is the restoration of riparian forest buffers.” The riparian forest buffers filter the nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, as well as stabilize the soil, thereby reducing suspended sediment in rivers and streams. In addition, they provide habitat for wildlife.

In 2007, the Chesapeake Bay watershed states, including Virginia, committed to restoring 900 miles of forest buffers per year. In 2014, they reaffirmed that goal. The states have fallen well short of that goal. Over a 20-year period, the annual goal of 900 miles was reached only once. In one 12-month stretch in 2014-2015, only 64 miles of forest buffer were planted.

Most riparian land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is privately owned. Currently, the Commonwealth does not require farmers and other landowners to utilize BMPs, including the planting of forest buffers. Instead, the state strongly encourages to do so and provides technical assistance and financial incentives.

Although many farmers have discovered that riparian forest buffers yield many unexpected benefits, such as improving the quality of their pasturage, there  are up-front and ongoing costs to installing them. First of all, there is the cost of the seedlings and the labor to plant them. Furthermore, there is the opportunity cost of the lost production of that acreage.

There are many federal and state programs that provide financial assistance to farmers and other landowners as an incentive to plant riparian forest buffers. Some of these programs provide up to 75% of the cost to establish the buffers, along with annual “rent” payments for the land taken out of production. For the 25% share that has to be put up by the landowner, there are some non-profit organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Finally, Virginia provides a state tax credit equal to 25% of the landowner’s out-of-pocket expenses (up to $17,500 annually).

Because there is a 2025 deadline for meeting some Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals, there is a push on to increase the restoration of riparian forest buffers.  This is where the Department of Forestry (DOF) comes in.

DOF operates two nursery facilities. The nursery in Sussex County is devoted to loblolly pine seedlings, producing more than 30 million annually. These seedlings go to 10-15 bulk planting contractors who use them to reforest areas that were commercially harvested for timber. Thirty million seedlings a year may sound like a lot of trees, but, apparently. it is not enough. The contractors keep asking DOF to produce more, but the agency has very little room to expand production at this facility.

The second nursery, in Augusta County, grows a combination of hardwood and pine species. This is the facility that DOF is planning to expand. The hardwood seedlings go to a broad spectrum of users, ranging from bulk contractors for large riparian plantings to individual landowners who get as few as 10-20 trees for their yards. The riparian projects usually plant 100-300 trees per acre. As noted by DOF, these seedlings are not commonly available in the retail outlets.

In addition to the need to increase the acreage in riparian forest buffers, DOF anticipates a growing demand for hardwood seedlings for large-scale carbon sequestration projects. GreenTrees, one of the companies managed by ACRE Investment Management, with its headquarters in Fauquier County, partners with landowners to plant trees and “sell” the carbon captured by those trees.

Another use for the hardwood seedlings has been for the reclamation of abandoned strip mines.

DOF does not actually plant trees, except for some Arbor Day celebrations and other small outreach activities. The operations of the nursery facilities, including all salaries, supplies, and equipment, are funded with the revenue from the sale of seedlings. As DOF conceded in its budget request, it could have used its existing cash balances to purchase the equipment needed for the expansion. However, to have done so would have stretched its cash flow and put the nursery operations at a higher risk of being adversely affected by unexpected circumstances and, possibly, delayed the expansion. The Governor and the legislature deemed the $290,000 one-time appropriation from the general fund a good investment.

Some commenters contended that, because nature reproduces trees, there is no reason for government to get into that business. Nature does indeed plant trees every day, but it is not quite as careful about what gets planted and where. Furthermore, exotic pests and diseases that kill native trees and invasive plants that can outcompete native trees are a growing problem that tree planting projects can help combat. According to DOF, because of mankind’s impact on the landscape, particularly fire exclusion, a growing deer population, and livestock impacts, many of the most desirable tree species are the least likely to grow naturally, especially on the sites most readily available for planting, such as marginal farm land. Planting seedlings has proven to be critical for establishing new forests and protecting waterways.

My Soapbox

There really is no downside to the state government encouraging the planting of trees and making seedlings available for planting. A major long-term policy focus of the Commonwealth is restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Increasing the amount of acreage in riparian forest buffers in the Bay watershed is an inexpensive, effective way of improving the health of the Bay.

I have reservations about the use of trees to produce carbon credits for corporations to use as offsets. However, that is a capitalistic approach to dealing with climate change. If it means that more trees will be planted, that is a positive note. Trees are a very effective, relatively cheap method of reducing carbon in the atmosphere and they provide so many other benefits such as clean water, wildlife habitat, shade, beauty, and wood products. That was probably one of the best new uses of $290,000 in the Governor’s budget.