ALL HANDS ON DECK FOR FREDERICK COUNTY’S FORESTS
By Ben Alexandro, Water Policy Director
Originally posted on Choose Clean Water Coalition’s blog
Exactly one year ago this month I pulled up to a tree planting event on a little farm in Thurmont, Maryland. On that crisp autumn morning, 50 volunteers from all walks of life carefully planted hundreds of yellow trees along a winding stream bank. In the years to come, these forests will grow to filter pollution running off the land, help alleviate flooding, and clean the air.
As I spoke with John Smucker of Stream-Link Education while he inspected each sapling in our new forest, I couldn’t help but marvel at the righteousness and purity of planting a tree. But then on the drive home, we passed construction site after construction site. I saw acres upon acres of forest—thousands of trees—replaced by bulldozers and bare ground scarring the landscape. It broke my heart to see the amazing work of those 50 volunteers overshadowed by the destruction of sprawling development projects.
Despite its many tree planting projects, Frederick County was losing forests. Between 2012 and 2019, according to the County government, Frederick County experienced a net loss of about 480 acres of forest, or an average of nearly 70 acres annually. This is because forward-thinking “no net loss of forest” policies were repealed in 2011 by the County Council. After years of perpetual loss, it was time to make a big change.
Advocacy and Leadership to the Rescue!
Addressing the magnitude of Frederick County’s forest loss problem required an all-hands-on-deck effort. Local community groups and many non-profit organizations teamed up with volunteers and advocates to drive change. It’s no surprise that several Choose Clean Water Coalition member organizations were involved, including Maryland League of Conservation Voters, Clean Water Action, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Potomac Conservancy, Sierra Club, Preservation Maryland, Clean Water Linganore, Catoctin Land Trust, Envision Frederick County, and Multifaith Alliance of Climate Stewards of Frederick County. Other coalitions, such as the Smarter Growth Alliance of Frederick County, were instrumental as well.
While the pandemic caused delays, Coalition members ensured the forest bills were front and center for County Council members all year. We generated hundreds of emails, testimony from dozens of advocates, and several sign on letters. Multiple op-eds and newspaper articles urged the county council to remain focused on this incredibly important policy.
And ultimately, the County Council listened.
Frederick County now has the strongest county forest protections in all of Maryland and is a model to the entire Chesapeake Watershed. Two forward-looking bills made the difference:
Forest Resource Ordinance (Bill 20-08): This legislation will stop net forest loss, as at a minimum, every acre of forests cut down will now be replanted. It puts back the protections lost in 2011 when Frederick County was once a leader.
Zoning Amendment (Bill 20-07): This legislation requires developers to identify environmental resources in need of protection for all future development projects. At its core, this legislation recognizes that not all development sites are created equal. Some sites have sensitive features like steep slopes, where tree roots are preventing landslides, and floodplains where the forests are slowing and cleaning floodwaters. Some developers fight tooth and nail to maximize construction on these sites just because they are within certain unit density zones. Preserving forests in these areas is critical, and Bill 20-07 excludes sensitive areas from development, saving the county’s most important forests.
Together, these bills will save thousands of acres of the county’s best forests and are huge wins for clean water. This success is thanks to the leadership of the new County Council—and especially the hard work of County Executive Jan Gardner and sponsors Kai Hagen and M.C. Keegan-Ayer—and the ceaseless advocacy of several Choose Clean Water Coalition partner organizations.
In the final analysis, even attempts to weaken the bill or grandfather in potentially damaging construction projects were struck down. And the two bills passed unanimously.
Building Strength Together
In the last year, Anne Arundel County, Howard County and Baltimore City have all upgraded their local forest protections. However, Frederick County has the strongest forest protection laws in the state. In an incredibly encouraging development, other Maryland counties are now looking at Frederick County’s legislation for inspiration. Montgomery County and Charles County both have hearings this fall to amend their forest conservation laws, and Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County are looking to Frederick to see if they can upgrade their policies even further based on Frederick’s model.
Frederick County will now gain forests instead of losing them.
Thanks to the work of so many volunteers and organizations, everyone who helps plant a tree in Frederick County can be confident they are growing a new and greener Frederick. And as Frederick County’s forests expand, we will enjoy the solace they provide and cleaner water and air for all.
Ben Alexandro is the Water Program Director at Maryland League of Conservation Voters and the Choose Clean Water Coalition’s Maryland State Lead