By Dave Wilson
Few things are more important to the long-term survival of wildlife than the type and age of forests in which species reside.
Unfortunately, conversion to loblolly pine, fragmentation, and the removal of dead trees has taken their toll on wildlife populations in the coastal plain. That’s why property owners, foresters, and land managers play such a critical role in preserving the Eastern Shore’s biological diversity.
In pre-colonial days, most of the peninsula was covered with older hardwood deciduous forest and the indigenous species adapted to live there thrived. Little management meant early successional trees like loblolly pines were replaced by mostly mature bald cypress, oaks, poplars, and Atlantic white cedar.
The mix of mature deciduous trees translated into rich leaf litter and decaying trees, ideal for a host of sensitive salamanders, turtles and insects. Large, unfragmented forests provided ideal habitat for scores of now declining birds and extirpated mammals, and dead trees left standing gave critical shelter and forage to woodpeckers, owls, and other insect eaters and cavity nesters.
Over the past three centuries the Eastern Shore has lost more than half of its forest and projections for the coastal bays watershed suggest the loss of another 10-15 percent over the next 20 years. As such, how landowners manage their land will be critical to the survival of what’s left.
Conversion to loblolly pine decreases amphibian, mammal, insect, and bird diversity by between 80-95 percent. The first three to five years of pine growth can have some value for some bird species but the 30 years after that there is little to be found, save an occasional Fowlers toad, hognosed snake or pine warbler.
For those of us conducting biological surveys, finding 30 species of birds, reptiles and amphibians is an hour’s work in a mature hardwood stand on the peninsula. But finding five species in a day can be a challenge in the vast pine monocultures in central and southern Worcester County.
For this reason, the state needs to work harder to disincentivise this continuing conversion. The seed tree law combined with forestry ideology espouses a “cut and convert” platform which is still replacing native woods with pine crops. The practice of “bedding” pines by altering wetlands where pine wouldn’t normally grow should be stopped.
Incentives are critical since pines currently bring in much more per acre than hardwoods. While many landowners know deciduous woods bring big deer and wild turkeys, those who have forests in production can’t afford to replant slow growing hardwoods that bring in less money at harvest than pine.
For this reason, the shore could benefit from (1) a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) upfront payment for planting hardwoods, (2) Offsetting state and federal financial incentives which promote loblolly pine, (3) Giving tax relief for hardwood, riparian, and old growth forests and extensive forested wetlands (4) Encouraging retention and planting of deciduous forests on state lands (5) Matching bird breeding areas, sensitive areas and contiguous forests for targeted easements (6) Supporting a one-time state income tax credit for all costs associated with developing a forest stewardship plan and doubling it for those in critical areas (7) Educating the public to show the importance of hardwood planting and forest retention. (8) Aggressively managing deer which are destroying plant communities and guzzling deciduous saplings.
For smaller properties and for homeowners with forest conservation areas on their land, pine conversion is not an issue, but what is planted and how it’s managed is. The county should make every effort to encourage the planting of hardwoods and in existing woods, property owners should resist the urge to cut down dead or dying trees or to remove fallen trees unless they provide a hazard. When trees must be cut, homeowners can help save money and protect wildlife by letting the trees lie and decay naturally in the woods.
Fallen or standing dead trees are the most valuable trees in the forest for wildlife. They are the croutons in the salad bowl of live trees. Their use as food and living space can’t be touched by their surviving brethren.
Along with the retention of dead trees and deciduous trees, slowing and reversing forest fragmentation will perhaps play the biggest role in the long-term health of the shore’s wildlife. The decreasing size of forests has had particularly onerous impacts on many bird species that become more susceptible to predation from a variety of common predators and from parasitism from cowbirds.
For forest species, size matters, and it matters a lot. The state should continue to work with willing landowners to fill in forest gaps and expand the size of Eastern Shore woods.
With our help, the Eastern Shore still has time to preserve at least a tiny remnant of its former grandeur.
Dave Wilson is the Executive Director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program