On the banks of the Anacostia River, more than 100 volunteers turned out to help do their part to restore, in Deborah Gangloff's words, "the greatest natural water filtration system in North America."

They were planting trees.

In all, volunteers planted about 600 trees, creating a forest buffer on the bank of the Potomac tributary that winds through the District of Columbia.

Gangloff, executive director of American Forests, was announcing the conservation organization's commitment to plant 1 million trees in the Bay watershed, mostly along streams, by the turn of the century as part of its "Global ReLeaf for the Chesapeake Bay" initiative.

On hand to take their turn with the shovels were dignitaries ranging from Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, EPA Administrator Carol Browner, U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck and many others.

They were hardly alone in their work. Tree plantings are spouting up around the watershed.

In Virginia, 14 miles have already been planted in the Shenandoah Valley this year. Maryland reported 67 miles under way statewide in May. No figures were available for Pennsylvania, but Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jim Seif proclaimed the dawn of the "next wave of environmental volunteerism" as he led a streamside planting effort outside Harrisburg. "Trees along waterways are important in urban, suburban and rural areas," Seif said. "Someone from any walk of life, the old and the young - anyone can plant a tree."

This spring's activities might be considered the down payment toward a sustained tree planting effort that is supposed to result in 2,010 new miles of forest buffers along streams by 2010. State and federal agencies have completed draft strategies outlining how they plan to keep this year's tree-planting momentum going for the next 12 years. Final strategies are tobe completed by June 30.

During that period, Maryland and Pennsylvania have each committed to planting 600 miles of forest buffers, while Virginia will plant 610 miles.Federal agencies will plant 200 miles in Washington D.C. and on federally owned land in the watershed, bringing the total to 2,010 miles.

Only about 53 percent of the watershed's more than 100,000 miles of streams have forest buffers today.

The Bay Program's Executive Council - including the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia; the mayor of the District of Columbia; the EPA administrator; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission which represents state legislatures - adopted the goal in 1996.

The goal reflects growing recognition of the many benefits performed by streamside forests.

They trap and absorb nutrients and other pollutants that would otherwise enter the water; their roots stabilize streambanks; their leaves shade the water and moderate temperatures; fallen limbs help create pools, riffles and other habitats; and leaves and branches that enter the water provide nourishment for algae and insects that form the base of the food chain.

Forested stream corridors can also provide valuable recreation opportunities and some wood products. There are financial benefits as well.

The draft Pennsylvania strategy notes that protecting streams by planting trees or maintaining those that already exist are far cheaper than restoring streambanks once they become severely eroded. Such restoration efforts can cost $500,000 a mile or more if a stream is severely degraded.

Likewise, the Maryland strategy said that using forest buffers to reduce shoreline erosion would cost $671,000, while traditional structural alternatives to accomplish the same goal would cost far more - $3.7 million to $4.3 million a year.

To realize those benefits - and meet the goals - all the states have established central coordinating forest buffer committees to guide efforts. Their strategies generally call for the states to lead the way, by first doing plantings on state-owned land. In addition, all the states either have, or are establishing partnerships with American Forests to build support, especially within the corporate
community, for forest buffer restoration.

For example, American Forests is planning 14 tree-planting projects in the watershed this year. They are being supported by retailer Eddie Bauer, Deer Park Spring Water, and the Mobil Corp.

Beyond that, much of the draft strategies focus on how to persuade landowners to plant buffers - a key element toward reaching the goal.

The Pennsylvania plan estimates that the cost per acre of planting and maintaining a forest buffer ranges from $565 to $2,715 an acre, depending on the need to protect and maintain trees, and whether the planting is done by volunteers.

One mile of 35-foot-wide stream buffer is equal to about 4.5 square acres of planting. The plan estimated the cost of planting 600 miles to be about $2.2 million.

New incentive programs will be needed. Both the Pennsylvania and Virginia strategies call for developing a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, a partnership where the states and the U.S. Department of Agriculture jointly make cost-share money available to farmers to protect environmentally sensitive areas.

And the Virginia General Assembly this year approved a bill allowing counties to exempt riparian buffers in conservation easements from local taxes, with reimbursements of lost revenues by the state. The Maryland plan says such tax incentives should be considered in Maryland as well. Still, even in Maryland, which has the broadest - and best-funded - array of incentive programs, officials say reaching the goal could be tough. Steve Koehn, who is coordinating the program for the Maryland Forest Service, expressed concern that, although money was being made available to initiate plantings, there are not enough people to provide technical assistance to advise landowners about how to plan, and maintain, forest buffers.

In addition, he estimated that the state needs to find ways to nearly double the production at its tree nurseries, and change the types of species being produced, to supply enough trees each year.

Koehn also expressed concern that this year's quick start could be misleading. Trees are being planted on public lands, or private lands that are not needed for income. Eventually, he said, the goal will require persuading farmers, who depend on using the land to make a living, to plantforest buffers - a more difficult task.

"I think in the first five years or so, we're going to plant all the easy acres relatively quickly," Koehn said. "I think years six, seven, eight and going out, it's going to be increasingly harder to meet our mileage goals."

The draft strategies are less clear about another difficult issue: How to keep the streamside forests that are already in place.

By 2010, some existing streamside forests could be lost. There are no firm plans to prevent such losses, or to offset them when they occur. In large part, officials say, that is because the restoration effort is intended to be voluntary. It is difficult to prevent the loss of existing buffers without regulations - a step no one wants to take - or further incentives.

"I don't think we've achieved as much in that direction," said Al Todd, the U.S. Forest Service liaison to the Bay Program. "People are thinking about it. There is a lot of political planning, education and groundwork to lay in doing that and it takes time to work through. Whereas people can start tomorrow saying, 'There's a bare area. I can plant trees there.'"

And that is indeed happening, even without the completion of the states' strategies. In addition to the plantings that have already taken place this year, about 73 miles of riparian forest took root in the watershed last year.

"Our progress will also rely on education and outreach - both to landowners and the public," Todd said.

"People have gotten real excited about the restoration," he added. "It's a great way to involve people and volunteers, and it's easy to do. People can understand the connection between planting a tree next to a stream and helping the Bay. Even kids can make a logical connection there."

Mike Foreman, of the Virginia Department of Forestry, agreed. Although some financial and technical issues - particularly adequate staffing to provide landowner assistance - remain as hurdles, he said popular support for the program will ultimately result in the states achieving their goals.

"It's already happening," Foreman said. "There's no real arguing about it. This is really a 'feel good' issue."

For copies of the draft reports - or final reports when they become available in July - contact:

  • Pennsylvania: "Pennsylvania Stream ReLeaf - A Plan for Restoring and Conserving Buffers Along Pennsylvania Streams," 59 pages, is available on the Department of Environmental Protection's web site at: www.dep.state.pa.us  (Choose Information by Subject/Stream Releaf)
  • Virginia: "Riparian Forest Buffer Implementation Plan," is available from the Virginia Department of Forestry, 900 Natural Resources Dr., PO Box 3758, Charlottesville, VA 22903, or call 804-977-6555.
  • Maryland: "Maryland Stream ReLeaf Implementation Plan," Stream ReLeaf Coordinator, MD Forest Service, Tawes State Office Building, E-1, Annapolis, MD 21401.

Riparian Forest Buffer Specifications

The following specifications constitute a "countable" riparian forest buffer:

  • All intermittent and perennial channels excluding man-made ditches.
  • All forest buffers must be at least 35 feet on one side of the watercourse or meet the Natural Resources Conservation Service standard for that site. For both sides to be counted as buffered, the total width must be at least 70 feet or meet the NRCS standard.
  • Forest buffer averaging is allowable as long as the stream does not meander outside the buffer zone.
  • If the forest buffer is established by planting, a minimum of two species must be used, either two types of trees or one tree and one shrub.
  • Plantings must be native, non-invasive woody trees and shrubs.
  • Natural regeneration is acceptable. Fencing is strongly encouraged, particularly in cattle pasturing situations.
  • If a substandard buffer width is present, enhancement through planting or natural regeneration is allowed and encouraged.