The Bay states should restore at least 1,200 miles of streamside forests by the year 2010, and ultimately return 75 percent of the watershed's streambanks to their natural forested condition, suggests a draft Bay Program report.

The report says the goal should be accomplished through incentive programs that encourage landowners to voluntarily protect and restore 75-foot-wide forest buffers along streams.

The recommendations reflect the work of a special 31-member Riparian Forest Buffer Panel that included representatives from government, agriculture, developers and other interests. The report was written by a technical advisory group to the panel and is now being distributed for comment.

A revised report, complete with restoration goals, is to be presented to the Chesapeake Executive Council - the top policy-making body for the Bay cleanup effort - for action at its Oct. 10 meeting.

The council two years ago directed that a forest buffer policy be developed. The council includes the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the EPA administrator; the mayor of the District of Columbia; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of the three Bay states.

Interest in riparian forests both here and across the country reflects a growing body of research that points to the important ecological role of natural riparian areas - transitional zones between waterways and adjacent land uses.

Historically, almost all of the more than 100,000 miles of rivers and streams that drain the Bay's watershed were bordered by vast forests. Forest buffers still line about 60 percent of those streams, filtering pollutants out of runoff, stabilizing streambanks, shading and cooling water temperatures, providing the leaf and other woody debris that creates the base of the aquatic food chain, and performing an array of other functions.

"Although streamside buffers of any kind are desirable, forests provide the greatest range of benefits and highest potential of any buffer type for meeting both water quality and habitat restoration goals," the draft report states.

It adds that "riparian forest buffers are not a panacea, however, they provide a powerful and effective last line of defense for a stream or the Bay and are currently not adequately promoted or integrated with other farm conservation, nutrient reduction and development planning measures."

The Bay states are striving to reduce nutrient pollution to the Bay - which primarily results from sewage treatment plants, and runoff from agricultural, suburban and urban lands - 40 percent by the turn of the century.

Once achieved, the Executive Council has committed to maintaining those reduced nutrient levels despite anticipated population growth in the watershed. The draft report says that riparian forest restoration could be an important part in maintaining that "cap" on nutrient pollution.

Ultimately, the draft report recommends that 75 percent of streambanks in the watershed be returned to forest cover, though it sets no deadline for reaching that goal. If the restoration rate needed to meet the year 2010 goal - 100 miles a year - were maintained, the 75 percent goal would not be met for about 150 years. The report also calls for maintaining existing areas of streamside forest in the watershed.

Albert Todd, the U.S. Forest Service liaison to the Bay Program and the chairman of the advisory group that wrote the draft report, said streamside forests are currently being planted at the rate of about 50 miles a year in the watershed.

Nonetheless, if the goal were adopted, it would be the largest effort in the nation aimed at restoring streamside forests in a watershed where the land is largely in private ownership. While efforts are under way in western states to restore riparian areas for water quality and fish habitat, much of that land is in state or federal hands.

Todd said the 75 percent restoration goal was based on research from around the country that indicates water quality declines as the amount of forest cover in a watershed drops below the 75 percent level. Restoring forests - which now cover less than 60 percent of the Bay watershed - to that level is unlikely, but restoring that amount of forested buffer along streambanks may help "mimic" the ecological role larger forest tracts once played.

The draft report says the most desirable forest buffer would be at least 75 feet wide on each side of a stream, though that width could be wider or narrower depending on local conditions. It defines a stream as "a perennial or intermittent watercourse having a defined channel (natural or altered) which contains flow from surface and groundwater sources during at least 50 percent of an average rainfall year."

Buffers should use native vegetation, both to minimize maintenance and to improve habitat, the report says. Some timber harvests and other potential uses could be conducted in buffers so some economic value can be maintained.

The report acknowledges that voluntary acceptance of forest buffers by landowners "has been difficult to achieve." Meeting restoration objectives, the report said, will require a long-term commitment to landowner education and improving incentive programs. It did not explicitly rule out regulatory measures.

"These recommendations specifically commit to a voluntary program," Todd said. "An incentive-based approach is an appropriate one. Regulatory approaches should only be contemplated when voluntary ones fail."

To achieve its goal without regulation, the draft report envisions a system of "watershed foresters" - such as those who have worked in Maryland for the past decade - who will use their technical expertise and a package of financial incentives, based on programs already in place, to persuade landowners to dedicate their streambanks to trees.

These foresters would work with state and federal agencies to coordinate and develop programs that encourage riparian forest restoration. They would help plan continuous forest corridors along targeted streams so that restoration efforts are not fragmented.

Local governments, state and federal agencies, and land trusts would be encouraged to restore streamside forests on their land and to focus on those areas for acquisition. Local citizens, supported by grants and training programs, would be encouraged to restore buffers throughout urban and suburban areas. In developing areas, the use of riparian forests would be encouraged as part of land use controls and stormwater management strategies.

The panel recommended that riparian forests be inventoried every 5 years to track progress.

But some - particularly in the agricultural community - have reservations about the proposals. They note, for example, that the recommendations set a restoration goal before the new, streamlined, incentive programs it suggests are in place.

"The incentive program sounds wonderful," said Wilmer Stoneman, assistant director for public affairs with the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, and a member of the panel. "But our past has told us that that is going to be very difficult to achieve. If you are not going to be able to achieve those incentive programs, other than a good feeling about putting these things in, what's going to drive the program?"

Stoneman said he was concerned that numerical goals would end up driving the program "so it's not as voluntary as we would like it to be."

To meet the goal, he said, managers may end up promoting buffers even in areas where they don't make sense. "My experience tells me that if you put a tree in the wrong place, it's going to end up in the water and carrying a root ball and a significant amount of soil with it when it goes in," Stoneman said.

Another concern is that the aggressive promotion of forest buffers would reduce the amount of financial support available for other runoff control systems such as grass filter strips.

Grass filter strips can help reduce runoff, but provide little of the habitat benefits to streams that forests provide. To many farmers, though, grass filters are less objectionable because forests shade cropland, take land out of production and provide habitat for raccoons, deer and other animals that eat crops.

"The cost to the farmer associated with deer crop damage are significant in this state," noted Mike Eckert, assistant public affairs director for environmental resources with the Maryland Farm Bureau. "The reality of it is, if you ask farmers to take land out of production and put forest buffers in, the costs would be higher than for other kinds of nutrient control."

Many farmers are already operating with a thin profit margin, he said. If forest buffers are promoted over other buffers - and farmers are worried forest buffers will cost them production - it may result in fewer buffers of any kind being planted.

"Riparian forest buffers are going to be a very, very expensive solution, and maybe not an entirely effective solution because they will not be economically feasible for all farmers," Eckert said.

Sean Davis, who represents the Maryland development community on the panel, said he thought developers in the state - who already are subject to a variety of regulations aimed at protecting streams and forests - would be pleased by the voluntary, incentive-based emphasis of the recommendations.

"I think the development community here in Maryland will probably be looking at it from the flexibility standpoint," Davis said. "There is a tremendous amount of flexibility that is recommended."

For example, the draft report recommends that if the protection of riparian forests results in fewer lots on a parcel, the developer should be able to increase housing density elsewhere on the property to make up for the loss. That type of program, Davis said, would give developers more flexibility in protecting sensitive areas.

"The whole thrust and emphasis of the panel was to establish baselines and then make recommendations about voluntary programs," Davis said. "I think from that standpoint, it's going to be well-received throughout the development community here because it's not talking about specific regulations, although I think we all recognize in the end that certain parts of this may ultimately result in a regulation here or there."