One of the hardiest perennials of the political landscape is the idea that real estate developers are cutting down vast swaths of forests and tree canopy and paving over our last remaining patches of greenery to make room for housing, office buildings, and parking lots. For example, the last decade has seen numerous efforts to amend the state’s Forest Conservation Act (FCA), to impose tougher restrictions on development on the theory that Maryland is rapidly losing trees to development. The available data, however, suggests that there has been little or no net loss of forest in recent years.

Hardy Geranium
“Hardy Geranium” by Patrick Standish, Creative Commons C 2.0 license

Is Maryland Losing Forests to Development?

In response to a multi-year advocacy campaign by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the state commissioned a detailed study of forest and tree canopy cover by the Harry Hughes Center for Agroecology. The study, completed in 2022, showed Maryland’s forests are not diminishing at an alarming rate as previously thought and found that:

  • “Forest area has shown a slightly decreasing trend over 5- and 20-year intervals but with a trend toward stabilization in the past 10 years (-0.14% annually from 2013-2018; -0.23% annually from 1999-2019).
  • The decrease in forest cover has been offset somewhat by an increase in tree canopy outside forests, resulting in a more modest decrease in the total tree canopy (-0.077% annually)
  • Despite the slight decrease, the state’s tree canopy “has been remarkably stable given considerable increases in human population over the same period (880,738 people or nearly 17% growth from 2000-2020).

Of course, environmental advocates argue that even if the overall reduction in forest cover is gradual that’s still a problem, especially if the large suburban areas around the District of Columbia are losing trees to development. But while the study did find that Montgomery and Prince George’s County were losing forest at a faster rate than the rest of the state, with about 1/2 of the loss in Montgomery and 1/3 of the loss in Prince George’s attributed to development, closer examination of the available data casts doubt on this conclusion.

Montgomery Breaks Even – and Then Some

According to an analysis by the staff of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which regulates land use in Montgomery and Prince George’s, little or no forest loss has occurred in recent decades in Montgomery County, at least on lands regulated by the Forest Conservation Act. Montgomery Planning Department data shows that over the last decade (2012-2022), 762 acres of forest were cleared, buy another 670 acres were planted and given legal protection against future loss, for a net loss of 92 acres. Another 2,637 acres of existing forests were placed in protective easements.

What’s more, at least two development projects were not included in the Montgomery Planning tabulation because they received approval during the study period but are still under construction. These projects, known as “Creekside at Cabin Branch” and “Ashford Woods,” are in the Ten Mile Creek watershed west of I-270 in Clarksburg and will add approximately 97 acres of forest, which will not only eliminate the shortfall but provide a net gain of forest due to development.

Different Ways to Measure Forest and Define Terms

This divergence between the state’s study and the M-NCPPC analysis is largely rooted in methodological differences. The Hughes Center used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) information and remote sensing data collected across the entire state, whereas M-NCPPC used local data that tracks forest on a site-by-site basis only for the entities regulated by the FCA.  The Hughes Center also used slightly different definitions of “forest” and “development” than the FCA, which applies only to new development on properties of greater than 40,000 square feet.

Hughes Center Technical Study DataForest Conservation Act Data
How Forest is MeasuredRemote sensing data from the US Forest Service and later from the Chesapeake Bay Office.  Remote sensing data has improved over the years so comparing old data to new data has limitations.  Of note, remote sensing data does not pick up planted forest until it reaches a certain height and spread.Directly from the forest conservation worksheet required for every project subject to the law on a site by site basis.
How Forest is DefinedForest Service= Min 1 acre and 120 feet wide
Bay Program= Contiguous area of trees Min 1 acre in size and 240 feet wide
Min. 100 trees per acre Min. 10,000 SF area and min. 50′ wide
How Development is DefinedNo definition provided (Assume to be all non-agricultural public and private manmade disturbances regardless of FCA applicability)Owners of properties greater than 40,000 square feet who are required to submit a development application, a conditional use (special exception) application, or obtain a sediment control permit
Comparison of Hughes Center and M-NCPPC Definitions and Methods

Prince George’s Adds Trees

Prince George’s and Montgomery are differently situated with regard to forest conservation regulation because larger share of land in Prince George’s was forested when the original version of the law was passed in 1992, so many parcels in Prince George’s have been subject to more stringent limits on removal of trees. In any case, a University of Vermont study using high quality lidar assessed trends in forest and tree cover in Prince George’s County from 2009 to 2020.  The study showed that tree canopy in the county increased by about 1% over this period. While forests are areas of at least 10,000 square feet with at least 100 trees per acre, tree canopy outside of forests also serves important ecological functions in terms of water quality, habitat, and cooling effects.

Despite variation in the measurement techniques and definitions used in different regulations and studies, it is clear at a minimum that development has not resulted in any significant reduction in forest cover or tree canopy in Montgomery or Prince George’s Counties over the past decade, and development may even have generated a net increase in forests and trees. Some forest has been lost as a result of factors other than development, as when farmers clear forest to grow crops or forest transitions to wetlands or meadow as a result of natural processes, but the idea that developers are denuding the state of trees is simply incorrect.

Maryland Tightens the FCA

In any event, in 2023 the General Assembly passed SB526, legislation that imposes additional forest conservation obligations on new development. Sites that have extensive forest cover will require more planting mitigation credits, and in many cases the amount of space for new trees once the site is developed will exceed the total area of the site being developed. The new law, which takes effect July 1, 2026, has local governments scrambling to figure out how to make sure their tree ordinances are in compliance.

Prince George’s County recently updated its tree ordinance to exceed the requirements of the new state law. Existing off-site planting and forest banking opportunities will be exhausted by just a few projects, and unless the county agrees to accept fees in lieu of planting or banking, some projects that already have been approved will not be able to comply with the law unless the area to be developed is drastically reduced. In other words, development anticipated and encouraged by approved master plans and zoning rules will not be possible on some sites with extensive forest cover unless the county sets aside public land or makes additional private property eligible to create new forest banks.

Population Grows 17 Percent with Little or No Loss of Trees

Forests serve important ecological functions, and trees are a big part of any community’s quality of life. Environmental regulation, however, should be based on evidence-based approach that targets threats to environmental health while accommodating the need for new housing and economic development. At a time when the state is facing a housing crisis and needs to grow the economy, an accurate understanding of the impact of development on natural resources has never been more important. In other words, updates to local forest conservation laws to make each individual jurisdiction “no net loss” is not necessary when state data shows forest loss stabilized under the existing law statewide despite the population growing 17%.