Clean Water: Pass it Along

My quarterly contribution to Virginia Forests magazine. They will make it better but the raw deal is below. I get to write the tree farmer of the year article, plus three more articles talking about tree farming in Virginia.
Clean Water: Pass it Along
About half of Virginia’s timberland lies in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and most of that forest land is privately owned and a significant part is managed for forestry. Since forests are essential to protecting the quality of water that flows into the Bay, forest landowners play a special role in keeping the Bay healthy. Forests absorb nutrient runoff that would otherwise harm the ecology of the Chesapeake. They slow and often incorporate sediment. Tree farmers are committed to sustainable land use and a big part of this is sustainable water resources.
You cannot understand the ecology of the Chesapeake area without considering how humans have modified the landscape. As the first area of English colonization, nowhere in the United States has been altered more or for a longer time. Most of the Chesapeake watershed was deforested centuries ago to grow food and cash crops like tobacco. Tobacco rapidly depletes the soil and our ancestors understood less than we do today about how to keep soils healthy and in place. As Virginia soils eroded and became poorer and as richer soils became available farther west, many Virginia farmers went west for better opportunities. Much of Virginia returned to forest.
It is a gift of nature that trees grow rapidly and well in Virginia and that has allowed our forestry industry to thrive, but it is also a tribute to the men and women who manage those forests in ways that keep them productive – and improving – year after year. The forest industry employs thousands of Virginians and pumps more than a billion dollars into the State’s economy each year. But the forests value does not stop there, not by a longshot.
Our well-managed Virginia forests produce a variety of “ecological services” things like carbon sequestration, flood control, wildlife habitat, and recreation. These things rarely turn up on balance sheets, but you clearly see their value if you don’t have them.
Protecting the Chesapeake is like that. Clean water is one of the most important products of a well-managed forest. Water is almost always better quality coming out of the woods than it was going in, as the forest ecosystem absorbs excess nutrients and allows silt to settle. As I wrote above, about half of Virginia lies in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but we also contribute to water that runs into the Atlantic Ocean, much through Albemarle Sound, in North Carolina, the Mississippi that runs into the Gulf of Mexico and there is even a little that ends up flowing into the Atlantic Ocean via the Pee Dee River in South Carolina. We are part of something big and important and we can be proud of the part we play.
The American Tree Farm System was established in 1941 to guarantee that in the future family forests could supply forest products while sustaining water, wildlife, recreation and natural beauty. We are living in that future the founders envisioned. We can best thank them for what they gave us by making sure we pass it along to our future.