For the last 20 years, from the mountain valleys and rolling hills of the Piedmont to the sandy Coastal Plain, farmers have been planting trees — millions of them.
Since the Chesapeake Bay Program set its first goal for riparian forest buffers in 1996, close to 8,000 miles of 35– to 100-foot-wide strips of trees have been planted along the streams and rivers that make their way through farmland and ultimately enter the Chesapeake Bay.
What was a new and somewhat novel practice in 1996, is now a mainstream best management practice in all of the Bay states. In fact, state watershed implementation plans designed to achieve the nutrient reductions called for in the Chesapeake Total Maximum Daily Load propose the establishment of more than 185,000 acres or 15,000 miles of new riparian forest buffer. No other practice delivers the range of benefits that riparian forest buffers do.
A broad consensus on the science of buffers exists, as well as an agreement on the benefits of riparian forests in reducing pollution and sustaining fish habitat.
Even so, the establishment of these streamside forests on farms can be a hard sell for conservationists. Buffer restoration efforts on a farm require landowners to permanently change the way they view the use of their land. Restoring forests where they have not existed for perhaps a hundred years is challenging work, much different from growing corn or soybeans or grazing cattle.
To help, government programs such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program were launched in the Bay watershed specifically to compensate farmers for the loss of cropland or pasture and to encourage this change in land use along streams.
No one disputes that CREP programs were a game changer, pushing riparian forest buffer accomplishments to a peak of more than 1,000 miles per year in 2002 and an average of 700 or more a year for the next five years.
But, after this early success, new buffer planting declined dramatically. In 2013 and 2014, a little more than 200 miles of new buffers were established in the Chesapeake watershed.
In June, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay hosted a Leadership Summit in partnership with the USDA and states to kick off an initiative aimed at evaluating the barriers to reaching forest buffer goals and to identify strategies that could accelerate the use of these practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
At the meeting, USDA Undersecretaries Robert Bonnie and Michael Scuse highlighted their strong commitment to the Bay restoration effort and to enhancing the delivery of CREP programs in the Bay States.
In September, task forces of stakeholders from each of the Bay states began meeting. Their discussions have looked at the lessons learned, as well as a wide range of chronic issues and new opportunities related to the advancement of riparian forest buffers. The declines of the last five years have their roots in a combination of factors.
All incentive programs are most successful in the beginning, as early adopters — highly conservation-minded landowners — readily enroll. In time, reaching more hesitant farmers requires a greater investment of time and resources spent on outreach and technical assistance — resources that have not increased with the challenge. This same time period has also seen corn prices skyrocket, making the chore of removing cropland from production a more difficult sell.
In addition, changes in CREP rules and delays and lapses in enrollment because of inaction in Congress to pass the Farm Bill have all added new confusion and frustration for farmers in what was already considered a complicated program to administer. Most task force members agree that improving coordination and streamlining burdensome signup procedures would help. In addition, a better linkage between USDA programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and CREP is essential.
The diversion of available technical assistance to other higher priority farm programs in recent years has also had an added effect. Although the effort was launched with much publicity and marketing, little has been invested by agencies in recent years. A new major outreach campaign is likely needed to reinvigorate interest.
The maintenance of tree plantings has highlighted a deficiency in existing programs. There is no better advertisement for riparian forest buffers than healthy growing trees and no better barrier than dead ones! Planting techniques that improved survival were still being worked out in early plantings. Plus, very limited cost-share funds for maintaining a new planting, combined with a short time period for support and a lack of long-term monitoring and inspection, led to a significant number of early planting failures in some areas.
While dramatic advancements in planting and maintenance techniques have greatly improved tree survival and growth, Most task force members agree that more resources and creative strategies for ensuring adequate upkeep and maintenance would be well worth the investment.
Success stories are also receiving attention. Instead of relying solely on federal or state staff to reach out to and work with farmers, these efforts are also being undertaken by watershed, wildlife and nongovernmental conservation groups in partnership or under contract to states to deliver higher levels of outreach and assistance. Many landowners also responded more readily to nongovernmental visitors. The success of this approach is obvious when one compares the data for buffer establishment in various counties or watersheds. Those with local champions stand out as bright spots of success.
Discussions have also highlighted the need to prioritize riparian forest buffers over other practices when incentive programs are developed. For example, in Pennsylvania, in addition to working with nongovernmental organizations to deliver assistance, the rules for CREP limited state matching funds to those landowners who agreed to plant trees. As a result, the state’s CREP program has been the leader in the Bay watershed in terms of accomplishments. Similar successes were found where financial incentives significantly favored the planting of trees over grasses. In many other areas, grass, not forest, buffers are the norm. Raising the incentives and priority for planting forest buffers will need to be a consideration for the future.
With a new Farm Bill just passed and CREP enrollment opportunities stable for the next five years, now is the time to take a hard look at this major driver of effort and to structure a renewed program that will accomplish the outcomes for which it was originally launched.
More ideas are being raised as the dialogue continues. In just the first set of meetings, we have documented dozens of issue areas or barriers to address. We have also compiled pages of ideas on potential actions that could improve riparian forest buffer adoption and success. These will be shared with all of the states.
Each Bay state task force will provide first drafts of recommendations by early November but will continue to meet and refine these ideas until final reports will be integrated into a new management strategy for riparian forest buffers called for by the new Chesapeake Watershed Agreement.
Considering the enormous benefits that these streamside forests provide and their power in buffering the impacts of our actions on the land, efforts to reinvigorate this work are essential. Stay tuned.
If you would like to get involved, please contact your Natural Resources Conservation Service state conservationist, USDA Farm Service Agency state director or state environmental agency. You can also follow progress through the Alliance and Chesapeake Bay Program websites. Your thoughts and opinions matter.