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Bay Watershed Forest Cover

In the 1600s, forests covered 95 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In 2011, just 55 percent of the watershed was forested. This data will be updated in 2017. 

September 09, 2011

Healthy forests clean our air and water, support industries and economies, and provide us with a place to relax. Craig Highfield, Forestry for the Bay Program Manager, explains how a healthy forest works and why they are so important to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.


Forests are crucial to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Forests protect clean air and water, provide habitat to wildlife, store carbon, control floods and support the region’s economy. But human activities have altered the watershed’s forests, reducing tree cover and fragmenting forests that still exist. When forests are destroyed by development, their ecological services and economic benefits are lost. Conserving and expanding forest cover is a critical, cost-effective way to reduce pollution and restore the Bay.


In 2006, the Chesapeake Bay Program formally recognized the importance of retaining, expanding and sustainably managing forests. In 2007, its forest conservation initiative outlined the steps partners would take to maximize forest cover in the watershed. In 2014, it adopted several goals that will directly contribute to forest cover:

  • To protect and restore 900 miles of streamside trees and shrubs each year until 70 percent of the riparian areas in the watershed are forested
  • To expand urban tree canopy by 2,400 acres by 2025
  • To protect an additional 695,000 acres of forest land from development by 2025
  • To work with local governments to reduce the rate of conversion of forests (as well as farms and wetlands)

Science shows that a healthy watershed in this region should be at least 70 percent forested.

Long-term trend (1650-2011)

In the 1600s, forests covered 95 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In 2011, just 55 percent of the watershed—24 million acres—was forested.

Almost all of the forest land in the region has been cut at one time or another, with isolated remnants of virgin forest (or forests that have never been cut) existing in small quantities. Between 1750 and 1890, forests were cleared for farms and communities and trees were cut for timber and fuel. While many of these forests were allowed to regrow, intensified agriculture and urban and suburban sprawl have led to more forest loss over the past 40 years.

Short-term trend (1990-2011)

Over the last two decades, the watershed has experienced a high rate of forest loss. Between 1990 and 2005, the watershed lost an estimated 100 acres of forest land each day. While this rate fell in 2006 to an estimated 70 acres per day, this rate is still unsustainable.

It is possible forest loss slowed because of the economic slump and resulting drop in development. Forest loss could slow further if communities enact protective zoning laws, but could increase if developers are offered building incentives.

Additional Information

Conserving quality forests

Forest quality could be as important to the health of the Chesapeake Bay as forest quantity. Several factors influence the quality of forest habitat:

  • Proximity to water
  • Species diversity
  • Ecosystem resilience
  • Habitat fragmentation
  • Economic viability

According to The State of Chesapeake Forests, development threatens 45 percent of the watershed’s network of forests and wetlands and 31 percent of the forests that are the most valuable when it comes to water quality protection.

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