The state’s forest conservation strategy should address the clear-cutting of trees for solar farms and encourage the protection of existing flora in new subdivisions, local residents told representatives of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources last week.

Representatives of local environmental groups and interested citizens who participated in last Monday’s State Forest Action Plan listening session also encouraged DNR to recommend planting more trees in median strips and focusing on species that are friendly to plant pollinators.

Forest Service staff have been holding listening sessions across the state to gather citizen input for the latest version of the state’s forestry master plan, which is scheduled for release next year. Last week’s session, which took place at the Potomac Branch Library in Indian Head, was the final meeting.

Southern Maryland is home to four state forests — Cedarville State Forest in Brandywine, which straddles the Prince George’s County and Charles County lines; Doncaster Demonstration Forest in Nanjemoy; and St. Inigoes and Salem state forests in St. Mary’s County. Altogether, the four state forests total 9,000 acres.

State forester Donald VanHassent explained that an updated forest action plan is required for the state to be able to apply for U.S. Forest Service grants, which make up 15% of the state forest service’s budget. The most recent State Forest Action Plan was released in 2015.

VanHassent explained that the purpose of the plan is to identify “what we need to do as an agency, what we need to focus on over the next five years to address whatever the issue may be, and there are plenty of issues.”

DNR hydrologist Anne Hairston-Strang described the action plan development process as an opportunity for staff to focus on developing a long-term vision for the state’s forests.

“This is something that makes us stop, sit down and put aside some of the stuff that keeps us more than busy day to day and say, ‘Where do we need to go, big picture, what are some of the ways which we may be able to change how we’re investing our staff time, what partnerships [do] we have, what issues [do] we need to be addressing as priorities?’”

Hairston-Strang said that the state’s forest plan will align with the U.S. Forest Service’s three national priorities, which are to conserve and manage working forest landscapes, to protect forests against threats such as disease and invasive species, and to enhance public benefits from forests through sustainable forestry practices.

Many of the state forest service’s programs and activities already align with the overall national strategy, such as those aimed at the preservation of rare species and reduction of harvest restrictions, aggressive community level response programs to combat invasive species such as the emerald ash borer, and programs across the state to increase tree planting to improve water and air quality as well as quality of life.

“As a species ... we can muck things up pretty well,” forest resource planner Jack Perdue said. “Well, we can work to fix them too.”

Sustainable public benefits in Maryland include traditional markets such as sawmills and firewood operators, as well as emerging markets such as wood-pulp grocery bags.

“Markets are very important,” Perdue explained. “If you are managing a piece of land with [the] expectation that you’re going to get a profit off that land, [to] be able to harvest it, markets are key. If you don’t have markets, it’s a little bit of a discouragement.”

As of the most recent estimate in 2017, Maryland has just under 2.5 million acres of forest, three-quarters of which are privately owned. Since 1970, the state is estimated to have lost between 320,000 and 370,000 acres of forest.

The state’s forests are also growing older, with young forests — saplings, seedlings and trees that aren’t grown for stock — experiencing a decline throughout the state. In 2016, the number of trees aged 81-100 years surpassed the number of trees aged 61-80 for the first time. Although the amount of merchantable timber — that is, trees that have commercial value — has been increasing, only about half of the 6.56 million cubic feet of merchantable wood is being harvested on average. The decline is being driven by a variety of factors: the closure of the Verso paper mill in Luke, the decision by the Port of Baltimore to stop fumigating logs for export, the recent closure of three of the largest remaining sawmills in the state, and even the recent decision by the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover on the Eastern Shore to switch to natural gas instead of wood fuel.

The medium-security state prison represented a third of the state’s market for low-grade wood.

“So what do we do?” Hairston-Strang said. “It’s not like haven’t known these issues are coming, they’re a long term trend. We haven’t had a full utilization program for probably over 20 years.”

“Can’t fix that in a year,” she said. “Doesn’t turn on a dime.”

To help address those challenges, the state forest service expects to schedule three to four timber sales per year at the four Southern Maryland state forests, as well as improve trails and broaden access for hikers and hunters. It also expects to issue up to 90 utility permits and up to 300 individual permits for roadside tree trimming in the region, to help improve access.

Next year the forest service’s successful Backyard Buffer program, which it launched several years ago to encourage homeowners to protect tree coverage in residential areas, will be expanded from Calvert, Anne Arundel and St. Mary’s counties to encompass Charles and Prince George’s counties as well.

The forest service also expects to prepare up to 160 forest stewardship plans per year to protect between 6,000 and 7,000 acres of forest for commercial, recreational and environmental uses. With the completion of the statewide listening sessions, the forest service will begin drafting a plan that is expected to be released for public comment in October or November. DNR expects to submit the plan to the U.S. Forest Service for review and acceptance in early 2020.

Twitter: @PaulIndyNews

Twitter: @​PaulIndyNews