What’s At Stake

Working Together to Protect Montgomery County’s Loved but Fragile Natural Resources

As Maryland’s most populous county, we have vital natural assets that we need to protect. Montgomery County is fortunate to have about 100,000 acres of land set aside in the Agricultural Reserve where there are more than 500 working farms. But throughout the county, we must be vigilant about protecting natural resources that are directly connected to our quality of life, particularly in our rapidly developing urban areas. In addition to being a local source of food, the Ag Reserve serves as a “green lung” that cools and cleans the air while protecting our drinking water and the threatened Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Climate Change

By the fall of 2021, climate disasters had already caused at least 388 deaths in the United States, and more than $100 billion in property damage, according to analyses from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Washington Post. More and more, we are all experiencing the impacts of climate change. 

We have a responsibility to do our part to slow down the causes of climate change. The Montgomery County government published an aggressive Climate Action Plan in Fiscal Year 2022. The county goal is to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 80% by 2027 and 100% by 2035. The Climate Action Plan details the effects of a changing climate on Montgomery County and includes strategies to reduce GHG emissions and climate-related risks to the County’s residents, businesses, and the built and natural environment.

There are 86 actions in the Climate Action Plan. In this fiscal year, the Montgomery County government is currently implementing 75 out of the 86 strategies.  The FY22 Climate Work Plan can be viewed here. Conservation Montgomery’s Home Tree Care 101 program is listed among the strategies for retaining and increasing tree canopy which helps sequester carbon in the environment.

Air quality

Our entire metro region is in a non-attainment zone for federal air quality standards. Poor air quality is a direct result of tree cover loss and poor land use and transportation decisions. Poor air quality has a negative impact on watersheds too. Scientists call it “atmospheric deposition” because polluted particulate matter reaches our waterways from the air. Two simple ways to help improve local air quality are reducing car trips and maintaining a healthy tree canopy. Find more information on our regional air quality and look at the daily air quality conditions in Montgomery County at this link.

Parkland and Green Space

With 37,100 acres of County parkland and 421 parks, Montgomery County’s award-winning Park system has acquired open space to protect watersheds and forested areas, habitat for wildlife, provide passive and active recreational areas, preserve cultural and historical sites and create vital urban green spaces. Virtually every citizen in Montgomery County lives within walking distance of a park. Within our parks are 490 miles of streams and four lakes. Twenty-two of our parks are designated as conservation parks with excellent hiking trails close to home for many county residents. There are 37 stream valley parks, 96 neighborhood parks and 22 urban parks. In recent years, our parks have faced the threat of land lost to widening the I-495 Beltway and I-270.

Streams and Watersheds

Our County has 1,498 miles of streams. Eventually, they all lead to the Chesapeake Bay. Several of them contribute directly to the public water supply for both Montgomery and Prince George Counties. Some portions of the healthiest streams rely on private landowner stewardship to keep them healthy. Portions of the Little MonocacyBennett Creek and Ten Mile Creek are in excellent condition and are privately owned. In addition, there are County-designated  Special Protection Areas that contain high quality waters.  But there are constant threats to water quality around Ten Mile Creek, most recently with developers attempting to build new homes that would increase impervious surface and exceed the science-based five percent threshold for impervious cover. 

Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) monitoring data shows that water quality is poorest in the most developed sections of the county, and in the sections of the county where tree canopy or forest cover is lower than in other areas. The health of our waters is directly related to forest and tree cover, impervious land use and preventing toxic stormwater runoff from reaching our streams and rivers. The Stormwater Management Act of 2007 requires local jurisdictions to implement Environmental Site Design (ESD) to the Maximum Extent Practicable (MEP). In support of this law the State has revised its Stormwater Management Manual.

Our Relationship to the Chesapeake Bay

Pollution on the land reaches our waterways and eventually the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary and one of our most treasured natural resources. Because Montgomery County covers a large and heavily populated land mass within the 64,000-square mile Bay watershed, we have a significant role to play in saving the Bay.

Decades of restoration efforts are beginning to show results, but progress is slow.  The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) annual report showed that the Bay reached moderate health in 2020, improving from a grade of C- in 2019 to a C, while the watershed encompassing the Bay remains in good health, earning a B-, the same score as last year. 

Bay stewardship includes managing polluted runoff from any impervious surface: roofs, parking lots, roads and driveways. New and infill development contributes to the existing problem. By finding new ways to capture more run-off onsite and by using natural features of the land and Environmental Site Design (ESD) we can have trees, rain gardens and barrels, green roofs and permeable surfaces infiltrate the runoff that would otherwise flow to our streams and rivers. There are many ways to curtail stormwater runoff that has been a factor leading to Chesapeake Bay pollution. Restoring the health of the Bay will continue as a long-term effort between city and county governments, six states within the watershed system and federal partners in the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Artist rendering by Tina Thieme Brown, Morningstar Studio.
Click map for large view.

Montgomery’s Agricultural Reserve

A U.S. Model for Farmland and Open Space

Established in 1980 and located in the upper third of the County, the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve is considered a U.S. model for farmland and open space protection. With more than 500 working farms, it is our living heritage and the future bread basket for a sustainable Montgomery County.

As the County population grows, pressure to develop here threatens an irreplaceable natural resource.  Conservation Montgomery works closely with our partners in the Montgomery Countryside Alliance to protect the Ag Reserve from overdevelopment.

Our Forests & Tree Canopy

Trees are truly the workhorses of the environment. They provide a wide variety of environmental services, including carbon sequestration. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, one mature tree – at about 10 years of growth – can absorb 48 pounds of carbon in just one year.

Tree canopy is defined as the layer of leaves, branches, and stems of trees that cover the ground when viewed from above. Montgomery County’s tree canopy is a vital asset that reduces stormwater runoff, improves air quality, reduces the county’s carbon footprint, enhances quality of life, contributes to savings on energy bills, and serves as habitat for wildlife. Montgomery County’s residents control the majority of the county’s tree canopy and have most of the available land to plant and maintain trees.

A recent analysis of Montgomery County’s tree canopy found that tree canopy represents 45.46% of all land in the county. An additional 136,888 acres of the county could theoretically be modified to accommodate tree canopy.

County business districts and urban areas should have at least 26 percent tree canopy. But there are parts of the county with as low as 8 percent tree canopy. We can do better.

Different from tree canopy, a forest is an area with a forest floor and complete ecosystem. Individual trees are treated in a different way in most county and state laws. The county adopted a Forest Conservation Law (FCL) in 1993 to comply with a State of Maryland mandate. The FCL law seems to be working as intended in the early 1990s, yet it applies to land of 40,000 square feet or more and was originally intended to protect upland forests instead of individual trees on smaller lots or smaller tracts of urban forest. The most current data from the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission (Planning Department) shows 29.2% forest cover in Montgomery County. In the Agricultural Reserve, there is 35.24% forest cover and 42.27% tree canopy in that section of the county.

In 2013, Montgomery County adopted two new laws to try to increase the tree canopy on smaller tracts of land, one law dealing with trees on private property and a second law dealing with street trees in the public right of way. Conservation Montgomery led the Trees Matter coalition and worked with partners with Casey Trees, the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, Montgomery Civic Federation, Rock Creek Conservancy and the Potomac Conservancy, to advocate for passage of the landmark 2013 tree legislation.  

Resources for more information:

* Chesapeake Tree Canopy Network
* Tree Montgomery – for free trees to be planted on your home property
* Tree Laws, Programs & Committees
* About Montgomery County Forest Conservation Law.
* About Reforest Montgomery program.
* About Re-Leaf the Reserve program.

Our Street Trees

Our street tree inventory is valuable as a component of the urban tree canopy in Montgomery County. The rights of way along roadsides are home to over 425,000 trees cared for by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Street trees provide countless benefits including beauty, shade, stormwater mitigation, traffic calming, and carbon sequestration. They are seen by tens of thousands of residents every day, a powerful symbol of commitment to our environmental quality of life. Every year, the county removes about 1,200 trees and plants more than 1,200 trees. The impact of budget cuts to the county street tree program has been significant. In FY21, DOT pruned over 11,000 street trees. The department removed over 2,000 tree stumps in the right of way. DOT arborists inspected 17,000 trees that might be diseased or damaged and hazardous.

There continues to be a backlog for street tree maintenance due to lack of resources to keep pace with the workload. The current backlog includes the need to prune over 1,500 trees, removal of over 7,300 stumps. Stumps must be removed to plant new trees in the right of way. At this writing, DOT had over 2,000 requests to plant new trees. Many of these trees will not be planted until stumps are removed.

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