Southern Perspective

The official blog of the Southern Group of State Foresters

Bettina Ring

Forests' Contribution to Healthy Watersheds: A Virginia Perspective

December 1st, 2015
State Forester
Virginia Department of Forestry

The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) marked its centennial anniversary last year, and while our agency has changed considerably since its founding, our mission is still very similar — protecting and managing healthy, sustainable forest resources for all Virginians. Our commitment to this mission extends to our work in watershed protection. This purpose is even more relevant and critical today and as a result, protecting healthy watersheds remains one of our top priorities as an agency.

brblog3.jpgWe developed our first Best Management Practice (BMP) guidelines in the early 1970s, and our water quality program has since evolved to be one of the most comprehensive and effective in the nation. Virginia’s vigorous harvest inspection program allows for one-on-one contact between the state and harvest operators, giving us the opportunity to educate them on BMPs and water quality protection techniques. Last year, VDOF personnel inspected close to 5,500 timber harvest sites in more than 245,000 acres across the state. A continuous statewide audit system is in place to track trends in BMP implementation and effectiveness, and data collected in 2014 show that the BMP harvest implementation rate on 240 randomly selected tracts was 93 percent. Virginia also provides a 25 percent tax credit on the value of timber retained to landowners who reserve buffer strips during timber harvesting.

Watershed protection and forestland retention universally go hand-in-hand — a fact recognized in numerous state and federal statutes and executive orders. Virginia’s forests provide vital ecosystem service benefits and are critical in protecting water quality, an important issue throughout Virginia. Forests excel at absorbing water-borne contaminants resulting from storm water runoff. They contribute the lowest nutrient and sediment loadings to Virginia’s waterways of any type of land cover, and forests are the best land cover for intercepting precipitation required for the recharge of groundwater aquifers.

Forest retention plays an increasingly important role in the Chesapeake Bay, our nation’s largest estuary. Since its founding in 1983, the Chesapeake Bay Program has brought together numerous partner organizations that have worked to guide the restoration of this very important watershed.

Although forest cover is recognized as one of the best land uses for achieving success in the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, localities have long maintained that unless Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) regulatory credit is given for retaining forestland, there is little local incentive for preserving it. In response, we are leading an EPA and Chesapeake Bay Program-team team of stakeholders that is piloting an adaptive management approach project to determine whether a TMDL credit is economically and environmentally beneficial.

BRblog1.jpgOur goal is to build the technical and modeling evidence to stimulate regulatory and policy changes at the federal, state and local levels necessary to drive land-use planning and decisions in directions that conserve forestland and, thereby, further protect currently healthy watersheds. The first phase of the project found that forestland retention actions taken now could offset up to $125 million in expected costs to local government in the pilot region (compared to current 2025 TMDL model projections). In Phase II, we will engage local leaders in the Rappahannock River Basin to develop a toolbox of land-use planning and policy actions along with incentives to accompany a TMDL credit and, at the request of EPA, will also invite our colleagues in Pennsylvania to join the partnership.

Opportunities and programs like these give the forestry community an even greater opportunity to demonstrate why and how trees and forests can be the answer to some of the most pressing economic, ecological and social challenges facing us and future generations.

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