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Maryland's Forests Great for the Environment and Economy

For a relatively small, largely urban state, Maryland has a unique variety of forest types and tree species. Starting on the western border, higher-elevation sites support sugar maple, birch, beech, white pine and hemlock. This is reminiscent of forests in Upper New York or even Canada.Move down a bit in elevation and there are vast stands of oak, hickory, black cherry and yellow-poplar. This is an extension of the great Appalachian hardwood forests that dominate from Pennsylvania south to eastern North Carolina.

Move down a bit in elevation and there are vast stands of oak, hickory, black cherry and yellow-poplar. This is an extension of the great Appalachian hardwood forests that dominate from Pennsylvania south to eastern North Carolina.

Moving out of the Piedmont to the coastal plain, loblolly pine dominates, along with oak and hickory — trees much more typical of the southeastern United States.

Finally, crossing the Chesapeake Bay to the flatlands of the Eastern Shore are vast pine forests interspersed with slow-moving streams bordered by bald cypress, sweetgum and red maple. A resident of the Deep South would be perfectly at home in these dark, wet forests.

Depending on the traffic around D.C. or Baltimore, anyone can experience all these different forest types in about a six-hour drive. Without Maryland’s forest diversity, viewing the same forest types would take a longer trip from central New York, through Pennsylvania, to the mountains of Virginia, and ending near the Outer Banks.Let’s say someone does spend the day traveling from one end of Maryland to the other just observing the trees and forests. Certain questions are bound to come to mind. Will we have forests forever? What role do forests play in water quality? Can trees help mitigate the effects of climate change?

Will We Have Forests Forever?

The answer to this is a big YES, so long as forested lands remain as forests and are not converted to another use. In temperate areas, forests will ultimately occupy the land. Areas that are logged grow back from sprouts and seeds stored in the soil. Marginal farmlands that are no longer actively farmed usually will revert to forests within a year or two. Areas where wildfire killed the trees or which sustain massive insect outbreaks will still regenerate themselves as forests, even if humans do nothing to encourage new trees.

Will Logging Deplete Our Forests?

Basically, it isn’t possible, especially when only 0.4% of the forested land is logged in a given year. And after it is logged, it will grow back as a forest, even if humans do nothing to influence the growth or species of the next generation of trees. In fact, right now we grow about 4.5 times the volume of wood that we harvest each year.

In the past, lumber “booms” have resulted in huge forested areas being cut. This happened in West Virginia, parts of Pennsylvania, and parts of Western Maryland. Now, however, all these areas have returned as forests unless the land use has changed. Social norms, forest protection laws, best management practices, and what we have learned about forest management and sustainability prevent a repeat of this history.

What Is A Forester?

This booklet discusses forests and how they are managed. While foresters are usually charged with forest management, it’s okay if you don’t know what one is or does. Foresters are resource managers who are professionally trained at accredited schools of forestry and graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Foresters utilize their training and experience to implement forest management practices.

Foresters spend their career practicing forestry; the science, art and profession of managing forests. Foresters engage in a broad range of activities including ecological restoration, timber production, and management of protected areas. They manage forests to provide a variety of objectives including those related to forest products such as timber or pulpwood, outdoor recreation, wildlife habitat, water quality, conservation, hunting and aesthetics. In Maryland, foresters often work with landowners to create and implement stewardship plans or harvest plans to meet these land-use objectives. Park rangers are not foresters, but foresters may choose to become park rangers. Loggers are not foresters, either, although some loggers have received formal forestry training. Foresters work in partnership with loggers to ensure best management practices are implemented during forestry activities. Perhaps one of America’s first foresters, Gifford Pinchot, said it best in his goal for forestry, to “provide the greatest good for the greatest number in the long term.”

Who Owns Our Forests?

Most forest land in Maryland is owned by private landowners from everyday walks of life, not the government or the timber industry.

  • 72% are owned by farmers, families, small timber investors and recreational landowners
  • 25% are state forests, parks or wildlife management areas
  • 3% are owned by the federal government

Source: The United States Department of Agriculture, Forests in Maryland 2018

So What's The Worry?

Most likely, high on a forester’s list of priorities is the maintenance of existing wood markets and the development of new ones. This provides an economic incentive that allows landowners to keep productive forests. Landowners should understand the value of their forests and how to manage for that value. And the vast majority of Marylanders who don’t own forests might not know enough of “the basics” to understand concepts of forest dynamics and management.

Apart from those economic and informational needs, we do need to be constantly aware of biological threats to our forests. Invasive insects and plants can, and have, wreaked havoc with some of our forests and have needed control. New invaders, such as the spotted lanternfly, pose new threats. Indiscriminate and unlawful logging that violates protections of water quality or wildlife can reduce those values from forest lands.

Responding to threats, educating landowners and the public, and enforcing regulations is the job of Maryland’s foresters and other natural resource professionals.

Can Trees Help Clean The Chesapeake Bay?

Most streams and rivers that originate or flow through Maryland empty into the Chesapeake Bay. Any pollution that the stream carries eventually degrades the water quality in the Bay.

Maintaining forested lands has long been recognized as a key tool in current efforts to restore the Bay to the high level of water quality needed for sustainable aquatic life and recreation. Forests act as sponges, storing water during rainy periods and releasing it slowly, all while filtering out nutrients and sediment that we don’t want in the Bay. These ecosystem services are enhanced when we manage forests for tree health, age and density. A forest’s location also helps determine how effective it is in reducing pollution, like near roadways or along streams.

Water Quality And Logging

The protection of water quality while logging is a matter of federal law. The federal Clean Water Act was originally passed in 1972 and requires measures to control “nonpoint source pollution.” This is water runoff from farm fields, parking lots and city streets, suburban lawns, roofs and driveways, construction sites and logging jobs. Most states have developed programs to control nonpoint source pollution, subject to approval by the EPA.

Logging requirements in Maryland can be found in a sizable document called “Soil Erosion and Sediment Control Guidelines for Forest Harvest Operations in Maryland.” This document covers legally mandated practices to control pollution. Loggers in Maryland train to make sure they know how to comply with standards and specifications to ensure best management practices are used on the ground.

Can Forests Help Mitigate Climate Change Issues?

We rely on healthy waterways to thrive. But as the population continues to grow, so do threats to our environment, which resource advocates — especially foresters — are concerned about. Our efforts to reverse these trends have grown in recent decades.

Forests also play an important role in defending our environment from the impacts of climate change. These roles include cooling, storing carbon, and managing water flow. Trees provide these environmental services and expanding forests could effectively lessen the impacts of climate change.¹ However, the ways we care for forests can impact the future benefits they will provide.

Forests are a major tool to mitigate the effects of climate change, but leaving a forest alone might not always result in its optimal health. Overcrowding of trees can stunt growth as they are all competing for the same nutrients and sunlight. Likewise, overcrowding makes them more susceptible to diseases and damage from insects. Management tools like selective thinning, or the removal of certain overcrowded trees to optimize the health of the forest as a whole, can reduce that stress.

Strong Markets Result in Healthy Forests

"The Forest That Pays, Stays"

We’re all familiar with many products made from wood. There’s lumber for our homes, furniture, and paper of all sorts from milk cartons to newsprint. They all originate in a forest somewhere. Once a tree is harvested, all parts of it are used for one product or another.

In Maryland, in particular, families and small companies own these forests. While Maryland does harvest timber from state forests, more than 95% of all the wood harvested in Maryland comes from private lands, according to data from the Maryland Forest Service. Big timber companies are not major forest landowners in Maryland. Much of the land from which wood is harvested is in the hands of farmers, families, or those who have purchased land for their recreational enjoyment.

For most of these landowners, being able to sell some of their timber is a key factor in why they own their forest land. For many, it serves as a savings account, a tangible value that grows over time as the trees add new wood each year. It’s there for their children’s education, retirement, or even emergency use. It’s dependable, stable and liquid, so long as there are forest products companies nearby that want to buy it.

It’s easy to think of forest products as lumber or plywood. That’s a major use of wood that we see often. We also often use paper, even in this age of computers. Cardboard boxes, newspapers, magazines, toilet paper — all forest products. On the Eastern Shore, there is a large market for wood shavings used as poultry and animal bedding. Many of our homes have wood furniture and fine decorative touches like solid oak floors. Maryland wood is used to make the paper cups that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups come in. Wood also meets some of our energy needs, from fires on cold nights to pellets that power heating systems in some homes and buildings.

Beyond the large-scale logging necessary to produce high volumes of lumber and paper, there are less obvious ways for forests to generate income. Landowners can remove dead or undesirable trees for someone to cut and market as small quantities of firewood. As key wildlife habitat, the forest itself has recreational value. Hunting clubs lease thousands of acres of forests in Maryland. In Western Maryland, medicinal and high-value plants like ginseng grow in forests. New emerging markets promise to compensate landowners who maintain well-managed forests that capture and hold carbon emissions from fossil fuel consumption.

So, what are the alternatives for landowners who keep and manage forests? These alternatives can come in the form of residential or commercial development. Undeniably, we need land for housing and other developments. But, as foresters say, “The forest that pays, stays.” If forestland owners have markets available, they at least have options to consider. Maintaining those options is important.

Can Wood Be Harvested Renewaby?

Every owner of forested land should have an objective in mind for the future condition and purpose of their forests. Some could be interested in future timber production. Others could prefer to maximize the habitat for deer or turkeys, or hiking or bird-watching. All are legitimate goals. Foresters can advise landowners of their options to help them achieve their goals.

In temperate forests, such as we have in Maryland, foresters most often meet landowners’ objectives by managing sunlight. If a landowner wants to maximize growth on higher-value species, foresters might suggest logging to bring in the sunlight to allow for stronger growth. If habitat for animals is in mind, foresters may favor species more tolerant of shade and allow larger trees to seed new generations. Certain songbirds, Delmarva fox squirrels and even black bears prefer forests with minimal human activity, so the forester may suggest to forego any logging and allow the forest to simply exist as it is while controlling invasive species as needed.

While wildfires, windstorms or even large-scale insect attacks are natural events that create openings in the forests, allowing new trees to grow. Foresters often recommend logging to create the same kinds and sizes of openings needed to meet the landowner’s objectives. The number of trees cut, the size and location of the openings define the amount of sunlight that reaches the forest floor. This, coupled with soil types, moisture and the surrounding trees for seed sources, determine the species of trees that will occupy the logged areas.

Here are the options that foresters might consider:

In this hardwood forest stand, foresters have left larger trees for some shade and as a source of seed for the new trees that will grow beneath the older generation. This practice would encourage maple, oak, hickory, cherry and other species of trees that are tolerant of shade and have important timber and wildlife values.

Southern pine trees and some hardwood species like yellow-poplar do not grow very well in shade, so the preferred logging method to encourage the establishment and rapid growth is most often clearcutting, followed by planting young seedlings or regenerating trees from the seed bank in the forest floor.

This forest is being managed through selective logging. Loggers enter the stand perhaps every 15 years, remove a few larger, high-quality trees and leave the rest to grow. Only the most shade-tolerant species will do well with the limited amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor.

What Is Forest Management?

People hear the term “managed forest.” But to many, it is likely the term is meaningless, even if a lot of their leisure time is spent in the woods. Yet, a managed forest is an important concept. Marylanders deserve a better understanding of just what forest management implies.

Management starts with an inventory of the landowner’s forested land. Through a combination of satellite imagery and good old-fashioned walks through the woods, foresters determine tree species, age, growth rates, the inherent ability of various areas to grow trees, evidence of past logging history, any insect or disease issues and the location of trails, logging roads and streams or wet areas. The presence of any rare plants or the quality of habitat for various wildlife species including those that are threatened or endangered is also noted.

With this information, foresters can sit down with landowners and help them understand the comprehensive nature of their forests and discuss their future options and goals for the property. Foresters can inform and provide options, but the final decision on objectives is up to the landowner. The objectives guide how and what forest managers do to achieve the future condition that the landowners desire. It is the equivalent of a blueprint to a builder.

Foresters know how to read and interpret the “blueprint” even if their predecessors wrote it, since implementing the plan can be a life’s work. Can forests exist without management plans and foresters? Of course. Many, perhaps most, landowners allow their forests to exist and grow as they are, and only seek help in the case of a crisis, like an insect outbreak or a sudden need for income. In such cases, there is a decision, but that is a passive one best described as a “non-decision.” But as people plan for careers with choices on education and employment, a plan for a forest paves the way for more options for the landowners and a path to more resilient forests that can withstand drought, pests and disease.

Do You Have To Plant Trees?

If someone is fortunate enough to be on a high point gazing across the mountains of western Maryland, they will see thousands of acres of trees. These are mostly hardwoods, with occasional stands of evergreen white pine or hemlock. All this land was harvested for timber at least once, yet almost none of the trees you see were ever planted.

The fact is, trees reproduce naturally and grow on their own. At some stage in their lives, all tree species produce seeds. These can be acorns, holly berries, maple “helicopters,” sycamore balls, or seeds from within evergreen cones. Often this seed remains viable in the soil for years waiting for ideal conditions to grow. Trees can also reproduce from stumps, or occasionally from the roots that remain in the ground. For these reasons, when trees are cut new trees will take their place, unless they were cut for development, and many local governments have laws to offset trees lost to development.

The lower Eastern Shore has different forests. These are largely dominated by loblolly pines. These trees are a native species and reproduce naturally from seed. But, landowners often plant areas that were clearcut so the valuable pine trees can take advantage of the full sunlight and quickly grow.

Foresters may choose to plant trees for several reasons. Planting can control species they want on the site. Foresters can also manage the spacing to optimize growth, or even to take advantage of genetically improved “super trees.”

Planting provides the seedlings with a year or two advantage over the inevitable natural competition that will also grow in the area. So there are advantages to planting trees and millions are established this way every year. But if they aren’t, trees will still grow back.

Here’s how forest succession works:

From the hardwoods of the mountains to the pines of the Eastern Shore, Maryland’s forests are as diverse as the uses we have for them, such as timber, clean water, wildlife, recreation, and scenic beauty. We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at Maryland’s forests and that you have a better idea of how we can sustain our forests for multiple uses for generations to come.

Contact Information:

This was made in partnership with the following organizations

Maryland Forests Association: P.O. Box 332, Linkwood, MD 21835 | Phone: 410-463-1755 | Website: www.mdforests.org

Maryland Forest Service: 580 Taylor Avenue, Annapolis, MD 21401 | Phone: 410-260-8531 | Website: dnr.maryland.gov/forests/Pages/county-map.aspx

Maryland/Delaware Society of American Foresters: Website: www.alleghenysaf.org/mddesaf

Maryland/Delaware Master Logger Program: P.O. Box 169, Queenstown, MD 21658 | Phone: 410-827-8056 | Website: https://extension.umd.edu/masterlogger

University of Maryland Extension: Website: extension.umd.edu/woodland

Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology: 124 Wye Narrows Drive, Queenstown, MD 21658 | Phone: 410-827-6202 | Website: go.umd.edu/hughescenter

Photos Courtesy of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Forests Association. Maryland-shaped wood graphic courtesy of the Maryland Forestry Foundation