ANNAPOLIS – Forestry is in Kirk Rodgers’ blood.
His grandfather, Fred Besley, became Maryland’s first state forester in 1906. His family has grown trees and harvested timber since his father and grandfather started the business in 1942. But today, Rodgers says, the family legacy in Maryland is under pressure as never before, and the temptation to sell is growing.
“We’ve been the centerpiece of forestry in this state for 100 years,” says Rodgers, “It would be extremely painful for our family to abandon Maryland.”
Rodgers predicament is more and more common among families that own timberland in Maryland, state officials say. With the price of land rising and the price of timber falling, many of these families are finding that the idea of selling to developers, however painful, makes more and more sense.
For a rapidly urbanizing state like Maryland, the stakes are high. Steven Koehn, the current state forester, said that forest land ownership is on the verge of passing to a younger generation that may not have the same connection to the land as Rodgers.
“We’re facing the largest inter-generational change we’ve ever seen,” Koehn said. “A lot of land is going to be transferred and these people are totally disconnected to the land. Their disposition is not going to be to manage the land, but to liquidate the assets, cash in and go off and do other things.”
Maryland has 2.56 million acres of forest land covering almost 43 percent of the state’s total land area. About 76 percent or 1.8 million acres of forest land is owned by family firms like Besley and Rodgers, Inc. But unlike Rodgers’ company, the average plot of forest land is only 17 acres.
With such a small amount of land, forest landowners are often not able to make a profit and are even more tempted to sell to developers.
“The return on investment for development is much greater than the return on investment for soy beans, corn or timber,” Koehn said. “You cannot blame landowners for the decisions they have to make.”
The loss of forest land has harmful affects on Maryland’s water supply and the Chesapeake Bay, according to a 2003 report from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Forests act as filters, cleaning sediments and other pollutants from the water before it goes into waterways, including the bay. Tree roots protect waterways by stabilizing stream banks and shorelines and reducing erosion. In the summers, tree shade helps lower water temperature and increases amounts of oxygen dissolved in the water.
“The linkage to the land is weakening in a professional sense, making this state marginal for forestry,” Rodgers said. “The result makes it more difficult to control pollution in the bay.”
Rodgers is a tall, lean, 74-year-old man with gray hair who loves fishing and will go as far away as Argentina to do it.
He is the president of Besley and Rodgers, Inc., the tree farm company that his grandfather and father, S. Procter Rodgers, started when they bought 4,000 to 5,000 acres of land on the Eastern Shore from 1942 to 1946. In 1946 they created a family corporation to keep the land together and now the company has 34 stockholders, all of whom are family members.
The company is the state’s largest private non-industrial forest landowner, owning about 6,880 acres of forest and marshland mainly on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and one small section of land in Tidewater Virginia.
Ever since Rodgers was a little boy he has been in the trees. His father passed on his love of the outdoors and his grandfather taught him about forests.
“The two reinforced each other,” he said. “I was living with someone who was a lover of the outdoors and someone who was a consummate professional.”
His father took him hiking, fishing, camping and hunting. One summer, they took a 126-mile canoe trip down the Potomac River for 10 days.
“All he had to work with were U.S. geological maps and his own instincts,” Rodgers said. “It was a heck of an adventure.”
The father and son often watched sunsets while lying on the side of a nearby reservoir in Baltimore.
Rodgers’ grandfather was more a teacher of the outdoors. He taught Rodgers how to survey the land when he was a young boy.
Rodgers served as his grandfather’s “rod man.” In the woods Rodgers went ahead of his grandfather with a pole that had a white flag on top, placing markers on the ground to mark the boundary lines as he went along.
In the woods, Rodgers saw another side to his grandfather.
“He was a very stern disciplinarian, but my image was different,” he said. “He was my partner in play.”
As a result of spending so much time with his father and grandfather outdoors and in the forests Rodgers says he has a sentimental attachment to the land.
“I have a real emotional attachment to the land,” he said. “The next generation doesn’t have any ties to the land and I predict very big problems for forestry because of this generational switch.”
The problem is not unique to Maryland, but is happening all over the country.
Richard Widmann, forester for the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, said that some states like North and South Dakota are losing population but most of the states are seeing an increase in population, especially on the West and East Coast. He said that Maryland is right at the top as far as loss of forest land to urban sprawl. “You can’t say any area is immune to development pressure,” Widmann said. “People want to move out of the city and into the country. Sprawl and development pressure you can’t get away from it.”