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Bay Watershed Forest Cover

In the 1600s, forests covered 95 percent of the watershed. Now only 55 percent of the watershed is forested.

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.

Produced by Matt Rath
Music: “A Moment of Jazz” by Ancelin


Forests protect and filter drinking water for 75 percent of the Bay watershed’s residents. They also provide valuable ecological services and economic benefits, including carbon sequestration, flood control, wildlife habitat and forest products.

Forests are the most beneficial land use for the Bay. They capture, filter and retain water, thereby reducing pollution and improving water quality. Forests also absorb air pollution and retain up to 85 percent of the airborne nitrogen from sources such as automobiles and power plants. Forested areas reduce erosion, control flooding and provide habitat for wildlife.


At its annual meeting in December 2007, the Executive Council signed the Forestry Conservation Initiative, with an intention to “maximize the area of forest by discouraging conversion of the most valuable forests and giving priority to forests in land conservation programs. Further, we recognize the importance of working forests and will ensure that public policies and market-based incentives help families retain and manage these forests sustainably”.

Therefore, the unofficial goal is to lose as few forests as possible. Maryland, for instance, has a policy for No Net Loss of Forests.  

70% forest cover is a good target for healthy watersheds.

Long-term trend (since start of data collection)

Between 1650 and 2011, forest cover in the Bay watershed decreased from 95 percent to 55 percent.

Short-term trend

Between 1990 and 2006, forest cover decreased at a rate of approximately 100 acres each day.  More current estimates through 2011 indicate 70 acres of forest per day are lost, but it will take several more years to determine a true rate of loss.

Forests continue to be lost at an exceeding fast pace.  They now cover only 55 percent, or 24 million acres.  The rate of forest loss could increase again in the future if developers are incentivized, or the rate could slow if more localities enact protective zoning.

Additional Information

Forest Cover Graph

The graph above shows the percentage of forest cover in the watershed beginning with 1650. Since that time, nearly all of the forested land in the basin has been cut at one time or another. Isolated remnants of 'virgin' forest (forests that were never cut) exist in very small quantities. From 1750 to 1890, most land in the watershed was cleared for farming, timber and fuel. In the last few decades, most deforestation has been due to development.

Impacts of Forest Loss

The State of Chesapeake Forests report estimated that more than 35 percent of the region’s private forests are vulnerable to development and, of those vulnerable forest lands, 3.5 million acres are among the most valuable for protecting water quality.

As forests and wetlands are destroyed to make room for roads and buildings, their ability to hold back pollutants and the important habitat they offer are lost as well.  Forest fragmentation can affect stream health, habitat quality and the economic viability of forest patches.

Quality Forests

Forest quality may be as important to Bay health as the quantity of acres. Several factors are particularly key:

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

Conserving Forest Lands

Retaining and expanding forests in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is critical to our success in restoring the Chesapeake Bay.  Forests are the most beneficial land use for protecting water quality, due to their ability to capture, filter and retain water, as well as absorb pollution from the air.  In fact, our watershed forests can process and/or retain up to 85 percent of the nitrogen they receive from air emission sources such as motor vehicles and electric utilities.  Conversely, a reduction in forest area leads to a disproportionate increase in nitrogen loads to our waterways.

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