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Deforestation along the Paint Branch Trail

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Posted on: July 13, 2020

by Anuoluwapo Adefiwitan

College Park residents and members of the city council felt misled by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s (M-NCPPC) presentation in early February on the tree trimming and removal that was performed as part of the county’s College Park Airport Safety Project, which launched in May 2019. Under the initiative, tree trimming started last November.

College Park City Councilmembers and residents initially understood that the M-NCPPC would simply reduce the height of trees. Instead, they witnessed a complete removal of trees at the east and west ends of the airport and along the Paint Branch and Indian Creek streams.

City Councilmember P. J. Brennan (District 2) called the scene a “deforestation.”

Christine Fanning, division chief of Natural and Historic Resources with the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation, admitted that the department’s initial presentation failed to adequately describe their tree trimming goals to the city. “When we presented the plan originally, we really focused more on airport operations and the safety aspect of it and did not give enough time or visibility into our environmental plans,” she said. 

However, Fanning upholds that the M-NCPPC followed regulations and only trimmed “the absolute minimum required by law,” which, she said, impacted approximately 3,000 trees. 

The College Park Airport, which M-NCPPC has owned since 1973, is the oldest continually operating airport in the world. Previously, the M-NCPPC trimmed trees around the airport every seven to eight years, in accordance with state code and Federal Aviation Administration regulations. 

According to the M-NCPPC, regulations governing obstructions to air navigation are stricter now than during the last trimming, which was done in 2012. Fanning indicated that the canopy in Old Calvert Road Park was 20% less dense in 2012 than it is now, and due to stricter requirements, the M-NCPPC had to trim 7.2 acres more than they had to trim in 2012. “Perhaps if we had trimmed four years ago, there would have been less impact to trees,” she noted. 

Brenda Alexander, assistant director of the College Park Public Works Department and the city’s horticulturist, said that many of the recently trimmed trees may not survive because they were pruned so severely. Decreasing the canopy increases sunlight in the understory, which inevitably impacts wildlife in the area, as well. This is a two-way street, as wildlife also impacts tree growth and survival. “One of our concerns is that there is a very large population of deer and they contribute to the decline of newly planted trees and or shrubs … that’s going to be a problem in getting these trees to survive,” Alexander said. 

Alexander also said that new construction projects have made it difficult for College Park to maintain a sufficient tree canopy, and that a 2019 assessment indicated that the city’s canopy is in decline. “This [the trimming] directly was adverse to maintaining the tree canopy and probably contributed to more canopy loss,” Alexander noted.

Brennan pointed to the role that the trimmed trees served in improving water quality. “Their actions serve to destabilize the soil and erode that soil into the waterway, which leads to the Anacostia tributary system, which leads to the Potomac river,” he noted.

To mitigate negative impacts of tree trimming in this area, the M-NCPPC installed bales of staked straw along the Paint Branch Trail. They also committed to doing additional work along the trail and near the CSX/Metro underpass on an annual basis, and to protecting new plantings from deer. 

“Our plan is to replant lower growth trees near the runway, but we will replant trees farther out to restore the canopy. Fully 70% of our replanting includes canopy species trees in areas that don’t have height restrictions,” Fanning said. 

Since early May of this year, the M-NCPPC has been planting trees in a 4:1 ratio of new trees to the number of trees removed. This work is being done in accordance with a plan reviewed by the Maryland Department of the Environment and three additional county regulatory agencies, the Town of Riverdale Park and the City of College Park. Work under the plan will continue until the fall of 2021 in a phased approach across eight zones in Riverdale Park and College Park. 

The project will also include installation of an upgraded disc golf course and two permanent shade structures in Old Calvert Road Park. 

M-NCPPC will foot the bill for replanting 1,510 trees, which is 900 more than required by state regulations.  

Starting this year, modest to heavy tree trimming will be done every four to five years instead of the previous seven to eight to reduce impacts to trees. M-NCPPC will monitor trees twice each year. Frequent, regular monitoring may reduce the need to remove trees in the future.

City Councilmember Brennan (District 2) believes that M-NCPPC’s initial decision not to involve the city government and community in this process damaged their relationship. Brennan said that clear communications would have allowed for proactive remediations while the project was underway. 

Fanning allowed that, “perhaps some of this confusion could have been addressed if we had worked more closely with our community partners.”

In a presentation by Fanning about the restoration project, the M-NCPPC committed to rebuilding its relationship with the City of College Park, the Town of Riverdale Park, the University of Maryland, and the Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation “by creating a shared vision and collective action plan to increase canopy trees, address storm water management and enhance the habitat.” Their commitment will include quarterly meetings with all parties to develop strategies and report on progress.

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