According to preliminary data collected in 2018, approximately 1,364,301 acres of land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have been permanently protected from development since 2010. (The Chesapeake Bay Program expects to release final data in early 2019.) This marks an achievement of 68 percent of the land conservation goal adopted in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement and brings the total amount of protected land in the watershed to 9.2 million acres.
Watershed-wide, protected lands have increased 17 percent since 2010. While some increases in acreage can be attributed to improvements in data collection—for instance, by reporting previously protected but newly digitized, corrected or refined parcels of land—other increases can be attributed to newly protected parcels of land, and data indicate a general increase in protected lands in the watershed over time. Due to the changing nature of development pressure, conservation incentives, funding for land acquisition and political and public sentiment, experts anticipate some variation between the number of additional acres that are protected each year.
The 9.2 million acres of protected lands in the watershed—which account for 22 percent of the total land in the region—include: 3.5 million acres in Pennsylvania; 3 million acres in Virginia; 1.8 million acres in Maryland; close to 410,000 acres in West Virginia; about 327,000 acres in New York; about 109,000 acres in Delaware; and close to 11,000 acres in the District of Columbia. (While new data was not obtained for West Virginia or Washington, D.C., in 2018, data corrections resulted in a change in protected land values for the latter jurisdiction.)
State agencies are the largest entity contributing to land protection: they own approximately 44 percent of the protected acres in the watershed. Watershed-wide, the federal government holds approximately 26 percent of the protected acres. Private organizations, non-governmental organizations, local governments and other entities have also been extremely active in land conservation and will remain critical partners in land protection efforts.
For decades, our partners have permanently protected lands with cultural, historical, ecological and agricultural value by holding easements, accepting donations and purchasing properties and development rights. Because protected lands can support sustainable fisheries and wildlife habitat, protect clean water and healthy watersheds, and preserve our cultural values, putting land under protection is one way to ensure the watershed withstands population growth and sustains the plants, animals and people that live here.
Tracking our progress toward protecting land from development is also critical to understanding our progress toward enhancing climate resiliency. Protected lands prevent the expansion of paved surfaces that can exacerbate nutrient pollution, harmful algal blooms and upstream floods. Along the coast, protected lands guard against floods and sea level rise. For these reasons, protected lands help us prepare for some of the disruptions climate change can cause.
In the future, this indicator may be enhanced to express the value of protected lands to climate resiliency and the quality of their protection against the impacts of climate change. A tract of land could be considered more valuable, for instance, if it provided habitat to a plant or animal threatened by climate change. A means of land protection could be considered more valuable if it prohibited shoreline hardening or allowed tidal wetlands to migrate inland in response to rising seas.
The Chesapeake Bay Program is also working to improve the data standards and best practices associated with this indicator. While we are currently able to update this indicator only every two years, our work to improve the accuracy of this data could allow us to generate real-time status updates of protected land in the watershed. These data improvements will help our partners incorporate land conservation into their Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) and accurately evaluate their conservation progress.