The “green” plan for the new shopping center carved from a historic farm in Lancaster County, PA, looked impressive on paper and in the newspaper: hundreds of native trees and shrubs would be planted along a stream to benefit water quality and wildlife.
But on a hot summer day only a few months after the vegetation had been embedded into the ground, Ryan Davis walked among the plantings and shook his head in disgust.
No mowing had taken place on the site, an essential practice to combat problems with invasive plants. No herbicide had been sprayed around the plastic tubes that shelter the trees, equally important to allow sunlight to reach under the tubes and prevent the growth of low greenery that attracts tree-girdling rodents.
Japanese hops, a highly invasive climbing vine that can grow 35 feet in a single growing season, was already climbing one of the tubes, bent on destruction. Invasive canary grass had started growing inside another tube, outcompeting the young pin oak there. “This one doesn’t have much of a chance,” muttered Davis, who manages a tree-planting and forest health initiative for the nonprofit Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
Another tube had fallen to an awkward angle, which will likely cause the tree, if it survives, to be misshapen. Some pieces of netting, initially placed on top of the tubes to keep out birds, had not been removed and the trees inside were entangled and corkscrewing downward.
Davis said the scene is too often the norm after streamside buffers are planted with much fanfare. And it’s happening as buffers are being hailed as an affordable, effective way to help Bay states meet their lagging goals to reduce nutrient pollution.
Davis claims to have seen “hundreds” of riparian buffer failures throughout the years when landowners or other project partners didn’t keep up with maintenance in the crucial first years after plantings. “It’s been a problem really for the last 10 years,” he said. “Everyone has known what we have to do, but we still haven’t been able to crack this maintenance problem.”
Buffer managers with other groups echo his lament.
“I’m sure anyone in this work has horror stories. It’s a challenge,” said Amber Ellis, senior watershed restoration manager for the James River Association in Richmond.
“We have had similar experiences,” added Lydia Brinkley, the buffer coordinator for the Upper Susquehanna Coalition in New York and a small portion of Pennsylvania.
“I have seen many planting projects fail due to lack of maintenance and many plantings succeed due to diligence in implementing maintenance practices,” said Craig Highfield, director of the Alliance’s Chesapeake Forests program.
Concerns over failed buffers recently reached the halls of Congress. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania successfully added related amendments to the 2018 Farm Bill. In addition to increasing money to expand forested riparian buffers in Bay states, money would be allotted to groups and government agencies to do “burdensome” maintenance on behalf of landowners.
“Planting the tree is the easiest part. Getting the tree to survive the first 5 years is the hardest part,” said Lamonte Garber, watershed restoration coordinator for the Stroud Water Research Center, whose studies into more effective techniques for establishing buffers have become industry standards.
“Awareness and understanding in science around this issue has definitely evolved and improved, so we’re in a much better place than we were 20 years ago,” Garber maintained. “That said, there are plenty of projects that go in that there’s not a solid plan for establishment, and those buffers can go off the rails very quickly.”
The problem was highlighted in recent years as Bay states reported nutrient reductions from buffers, claiming credit toward meeting their cleanup goals. But when managers went out to inspect and verify the buffers, an unsettling number had languished.
In many cases where buffers fail or replantings have to be done, it’s a matter of the landowner not following through.
The largest-scale buffer program in the Bay watershed is the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. CREP, as it is known, provides an annual payment to landowners, usually farmers, who agree to take land along rivers and streams out of production in order to plant forested or grassy buffers.
That fee is supposed to cover maintenance and protection of the buffer for as long as it takes to get established. But, too often, environmental groups say, the needed information and technical guidance is not communicated to the landowner and buffers fall into disrepair.
It’s tempting to bash the landowner who is taking taxpayer money, but Ellis said the problem is not clear-cut. “Especially for landowners who have a pile of other work or a full-time job,” she said. “If they are an active farmer, they’re working who knows how many hours a week. Maintaining a buffer is just another thing.”
Holly May, who works on establishing forested buffers for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay in West Virginia, said “With at least CREP, the maintenance payments just aren’t enough to motivate [landowners] to make them do it. If they’re looking out the window and see the buffer, they will do it, but if it’s out of sight and out of mind, it’s a little easier for time to get away from you.”
The burden is on landowners, say federal officials who administer CREP.
Part of the annual payment is for maintenance, said Alexis Tirado, the federal Farm Service Agency’s program manager for CREP in Pennsylvania. “It’s your responsibility. You committed to that when you signed the contract. You don’t enroll in the program and forget about the land you just enrolled. But for multiple reasons, not everyone understands it in that way,” Tirado said.
But once a landowner sends notification that the buffer is complete, the regulations only require that someone from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service check the buffer for compliance once within five years.
Tirado emphasized that every county office of NRCS operates differently and more frequent monitoring may happen. “It depends on workload,” he said. “That’s one of the main limiting factors.”
Certainly, Roger Rohrer, a poultry farmer in Lancaster County, PA, had no idea what he was signing up for when he agreed to a CREP buffer along a stream in 2001. At that time, CREP did not even allow landowners to mow or use herbicides on a buffer.
That, along with two droughts, caused about 750 planted trees to fail, he said. “Tubes were swallowed by invasives. It was an eyesore and a bad billboard for the whole concept.”
Still, after learning about the environmental benefits of buffers and the effects that stormwater runoff from Lancaster County was having on the Bay, Rohrer signed up for another buffer on his land in 2010 and a third in 2016.
Spraying and mowing was now allowed. He learned by doing. He discovered the hard way how to fix dislodged tubes after storms.
“Nobody knew about the maintenance but we figured it out as we went,” he said. “That one– to seven-year period is critical, and there’s a lot of work to be done. I’m not sure the industry understands that. In my 18 years of buffers, I’m in there every week with a spot sprayer controlling invasives… I tell farmers who come to look at my buffers that it’s like a seven-year crop and you have to stay with it.”
Some environmental groups are taking matters into their own hands, and state and federal agencies are meting out more money to bolster maintenance, or “establishment” as it’s called by managers.
In Pennsylvania, Davis related an experience that he called a “wake-up call.” Three new buffers subsidized by the state were planted in the spring of 2018 to launch a new streamside buffer program. Even though the program includes maintenance provided by the Alliance, when the sites were checked again in late summer, record wet weather had killed trees. Floodwaters and debris had knocked over tubes and shorted out an electric fence, allowing cows to run roughshod over the plantings.
Davis put out the word to a network of volunteers and quickly assembled a Riparian Ranger program. The volunteer “rangers” pledge to go out once a month during the growing season to check for fallen tubes, ensure that mowing and spraying have been done and look for dead trees or shrubs.
Already, Riparian Rangers have signed up for all 30 sites established in three Pennsylvania counties. Many are Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners and others wanting to make a difference.
A Pennsylvania nonprofit, the ClearWater Conservancy, has initiated a similar program in which volunteer Habitat Stewards perform maintenance on existing buffers.
In Virginia, the James River Association, in partnership with the state Department of Forestry, started a new riparian buffer program in which maintenance is built in for three years. The Department of Forestry also sends foresters out to each CREP buffer project until it is deemed established.
In both Maryland and Virginia, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has started a Healthy Streams Farm Stewardship program in which landowners who engage in buffer projects are handed financial vouchers they can use for maintenance needs. In Virginia, buffer programs through the Alliance also come with maintenance provided.
In a New York pilot program, supported by federal funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Upper Susquehanna Coalition is performing maintenance work on buffers, no matter who started them.
Such new and needed emphasis on helping new buffers to ward off the many threats they encounter comes at a time when Bay states are pushing for even more buffers. The state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program has a goal of adding buffers to 900 miles of streams each year, though the totals have nowhere approached that goal in recent years.
Buffers have been a tool in the Bay restoration since 1994. They continue to play an important role in the draft Bay cleanup plans that Bay states and the District of Columbia submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in April.
Pennsylvania is calling for $41 million to be spent on forested buffers and another $9 million on grass buffers by 2025.
Virginia is trying to boost flatlined buffer plantings by increasing the state match for CREP projects. The state wants to double its acreage of grass buffers over the next six years and substantially boost forested buffers.
Maryland also wants to increase the rate of plantings for forested and grass buffers.
In New York, state environmental officials want to double both the amount of forested and grass buffers by 2025.
West Virginia, even though it has already met its cleanup goals, also has streambank restoration as a priority action.
Much of those lofty goals will depend on buffer maintenance.
This is Davis’ plea: “Just give us three or four years of tender, loving care, mowing and spraying a couple times a year, and it’ll last for 300 years.”