By: TORI WONG
Deforestation, a term often associated with distant developing countries, is a concept that Fredericksburg residents may be hearing about more frequently in the near future.
According to a 2010 report by the George Washington Regional Commission (GWRC), tree cover in Fredericksburg has declined 27 percent in the past 13 years due to population growth, development and construction projects throughout the region.
Deforestation is often cited as one of the major causes of the greenhouse effect linked to climate change because trees that are cut down no longer remove carbon dioxide, a known greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. The greenhouse effect causes the atmosphere to trap more heat energy at the Earth’s surface and within the atmosphere.
The removal of forests allows for land to be developed for agriculture, development and construction, all necessary commodities to accommodate the region’s growing population.
The GWRC reports that the George Washington Region, including Fredericksburg, Stafford, Caroline and King George counties, is the “region with the fastest growing population in Virginia for more than the last 20 years.”
In its study, the GWRC compared the 1996 population and tree cover data with comparable 2009 data to determine land cover changes throughout the region.
The 13-year period shows that population continued to increase while tree cover continued to decline throughout the region.
Fredericksburg alone lost an estimated 807.5 acres of trees, a 27.64 percent decline, while the population increased by 9.06 percent.
However, this concept is not unique to Fredericksburg. Because of the increase in population, new forces like sprawling development and an increase in the amount of impervious surfaces, including parking lots, sidewalks and roads, are altering forest ecosystems throughout the state every day.
The United States Department of Agriculture forest service reports that while “forests now cover 58 percent, or 24 million acres, of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the watershed loses 100 acres of forestland each day.”
In a 20-year period, the Chesapeake Bay watershed lost over 750,000 acres of forestland to development—a rate of 140 acres a day and equivalent to the loss of 20 cities the size of Washington, D.C.
Jim Pugh, the GIS technician of the Virginia Department of Forestry, feels that, “Fredericksburg’s urban tree canopy is a vital community asset, reducing storm water runoff, improving air quality, reducing the city’s carbon footprint, enhancing quality of life, contributing to savings on energy bills and serving as a habitat for wildlife.”
The GWRC reports that the 27 percent decrease in tree cover accompanies a 25 percent increase in impervious surfaces.
In 2010, the Virginia Department of Transportation conducted a study of the environmental consequences of expansion of I-95 through Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, Stafford and Prince William counties.
The study found that if carried out as planned, the highway expansion would displace 518 acres of woodlands and 11 acres of aquatic habitat.
According to Mike Kuhns, a forestry specialist with Utah State University, residential changes also account for a large part of the tree cover loss in Fredericksburg.
“The most common reason for residential tree pruning is to clear power lines and other overhead utility lines,” Kuhns said.
Trees growing into power lines have been known to cause power outages, so a wide variety of contractors offer trimming services to Fredericksburg residents.
Kuhns notes, however, that in the past, pruning done during line clearing may have decreased tree health and could even have caused trees to become dangerous.
“Modern techniques have been developed that result in healthier, safer trees and reduced line clearing costs,” Kuhns said.
Based on current development trends from the USDA, 45 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s network of forests and wetlands is vulnerable to future development.
Many of the threatened forests surrounding Fredericksburg in particular are large, high quality tracts that are not under public ownership or other protection.