Nearly 20 years ago, Bay cleanup leaders determined that the path to a healthy Chesapeake Bay was one lined with lush corridors of healthy trees.

After two years of study, the state-federal Bay Program partnership in 1996 set a bold goal of planting 2,010 miles of streamside, or riparian, forest buffers by 2010.

That goal seemed to stretch what was possible, yet the region met and surpassed that challenge by 2002, making it a national leader in promoting riparian forests, something that has become a touchstone for stream restoration efforts across the nation.

In a watershed with more than 180,000 miles of streams, of which only about 55 percent are estimated to be forested, it has always been recognized that significantly more forested buffers would be needed to restore stream health. Cleanup plans crafted by the states to meet cleanup goals collectively call for planting more than 15,000 additional miles of buffers by 2025.

But today, streamside forest planting efforts are faltering badly throughout the watershed, as shown in figures from the state-federal Bay Program partnership. Just 202 miles of forest buffers were planted throughout the Chesapeake’s 64,000-square-mile watershed last year, according to its Forestry Workgroup.

That’s the worst performance since 1998, when riparian forest planting initiatives were ramping up.

The 2013 figures continue a downward trend that has persisted since 2007 despite record spending in recent years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to install conservation measures on farm land.

Forest buffers can significantly improve stream health, and the shortfall is a setback for efforts to restore healthy waterways and reach nutrient reduction goals.

Most states rely heavily on riparian forest buffers to meet nitrogen reduction goals in their watershed implementation plans, which they developed to meet pollution reduction goals set in the Bay’s Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution diet. Cumulatively, those plans count on riparian forest buffers to achieve 10.4 percent of the Bay’s nitrogen reduction goal by 2025.

That is a greater nitrogen reduction than any best management practice except the retirement of farmland. In comparison, wastewater treatment plant upgrades throughout the watershed are expected to achieve a 7 percent nitrogen reduction.

“If we are continuing to lose ground on the number two BMP, then there is a problem that needs some serious oversight,” said Sally Claggett, Chesapeake Bay Program Coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service. She is working to organize a leadership summit this year aimed at finding ways to accelerate streamside forest plantings.

The Bay Program’s Forestry Workgroup has drafted a white paper that estimates about 1,200 miles of buffers would need to be planted annually to meet the cumulative target set in state watershed implementation plans — six times what was planted last year.

Every year the goal isn’t met, the task of getting enough forest buffers on the ground gets bigger. And it’s a problem officials fear could grow worse as many forest buffers were planted on 15-year contracts that are starting to expire.

Big Implications

Failure to meet forest buffer goals has major implications for Bay nutrient reduction efforts. Few runoff control practices are as effective at achieving nitrogen reductions as forested streamside buffers. In the right place, they can filter 60 percent of the nitrogen, as well as two-fifths of the phosphorus and more than half of the sediment, before it reaches the stream. They also create conditions within streams that help remove additional amounts of nitrogen from the waterways.

Forests provide a multitude of benefits besides serving as a last line of defense to keep nutrients and sediment out of streams. Tree roots hold back soil, preventing streambank erosion, and their branches shade the water, helping to maintain steady water temperatures. Fallen branches provide important stream habitat. And, fallen leaves provide food for aquatic insects that support the stream’s food web.

Making up for a shortfall in forest buffer plantings would require the implementation of large amounts of less-effective runoff control practices.

In a recent letter to federal agencies, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called the buffer shortfall “alarming” given its importance in state cleanup plans, and called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to commit to an acceleration of buffer plantings.

“We would like to see more of a focus on that practice,” said Beth McGee, CBF’s senior water quality scientist. “It is very important for all of the states in terms of pollution reductions, as well as for multiple environmental benefits. The feds need to play a more active role.”

Feds play a major role

Federal programs are the biggest driver for installing forest buffers. Shortly after the Bay Program set its 2010 mile goal, the USDA created a new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. CREP, like the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, paid farmers to take marginal land out of production but also — in partnership with states — paid to “enhance” those lands by planting forest or grass buffers to help protect and improve stream health.

CREP was launched in the Bay watershed in 1997 and quickly became responsible for the overwhelming majority of forest buffer plantings. While only about 10 miles of forest buffers were planted in 1996, agencies and volunteer groups were soon planting hundreds of miles annually.

Forest buffers have won strong advocates not only from groups wanting to help the Bay, but also organizations such as Trout Unlimited that want to restore streams far up its watershed. The rise of CREP helped those groups sell landowners on the merits of forest buffers — in 2002 alone, more than 1,100 miles were planted, About 8,000 miles have been planted since 1996.

Nonetheless, plantings began dropping after 2006, and fewer than 400 miles have been planted in each of the last four years.

Why the drop-off?

Government officials and technical assistance providers cite many reasons for the drop-off.

Record-high prices for corn, wheat and soybeans in recent years have made farmers reluctant to take land out of production. “As commodity prices go up, farmers start looking at opportunities to plant more,” said Jack Bricker, Virginia state conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service. “If somebody was considering a buffer and the corn price spikes to $7 or $8 a bushel, that isn’t the year they want to do the buffer.”

Many of the farmers most interested in forest buffers signed up early. “The next round is going to be a tougher sell,” said Stephanie Eisenbise, Pennsylvania watershed restoration manager with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It is not the early adopters and the people who love planting trees.”

Also, the 15-year contract required under CREP can be a disincentive to landowners who are reluctant to make commitments binding to their heirs or other future landowners.

Another disincentive is that while the CREP program pays the upfront costs of buffer planting and makes annual rental payments to farmers — which in areas with high quality soils can be worth hundreds of dollars an acre — the farmer has substantial maintenance responsibilities.

Maintaining the project may mean mowing or treating the buffer with herbicides to keep invasive plants from overwhelming the trees; replacing or repairing tree-shelter tubes damaged or washed away in floods; and ensuring that at least 70 percent of the trees survive.

Making sure the buffer survives and functions is important not only for the landowner, but also for the CREP program. Success or failure of each planting sends a powerful message — good or bad — to others who might be considering the practice.

“When a farmer rides by a CREP area that is filled with Canadian thistles and empty shelters, they say ‘I don’t want that on my farm,” said Bobby Whitescarver, a retired district conservationist who spent 31 years with the NRCS and is now a private consultant. “But if they go by and it has healthy trees and no invasives, they’ll go, ‘Wow, I think I would like that on my farm.’ ”

Indeed, any uncertainty can create a lack of confidence among farmers considering a long-term commitment with their land. Those working in the program say Congress added uncertainty when it twice let the Farm Bill expire, halting new CREP signups for months at a time until temporary extensions were passed. And while officials say the program will exist under the new Farm Bill approved in February, the details are uncertain.

Sometimes the problem can be at the state level. In Virginia, for instance, the amount of state money available for the program has fluctuated widely in some recent years, and was briefly zeroed-out. “If you cut the funding by two-thirds, you have two thirds fewer buffers going up,” Bricker said.

Technical assistance needed

CREP itself can be cumbersome. The USDA’s Farm Services Agency administers the program and landowner contracts, while the NRCS works with farmers and provides technical assistance. State agencies also work to sell the program and provide funding. “It’s a complicated program,” Whitescarver said. “A lot of people are scared of the red tape.”

Officials acknowledge that a lack of coordination can result in landowners getting conflicting messages. And short staffing can result in FSA and NRCS personnel not being in the same office, which can hurt coordination and delay buffer contract approval.

“I’m not convinced that it needs to be as cumbersome as it has been,” agreed Bill Wehry, executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Pennsylvania. Wehry said he has made a priority of streamlining the CREP administration and signup process to coordinate the activities of multiple agencies and groups working with the program.

Forest buffers may be a preferred practice, but they may require more technical assistance than, say, a cover crop, especially during the first few years. Unfortunately, this technical support is in short supply, increasing waiting times, and sometimes frustrating farmers ready to create a buffer.

“If you are going to do the job right, and really get involved with the operator and spend the appropriate amount of time integrating a forest buffer into their overall system, it does take time,” said Joe Thompson, who spent more than three decades with the NRCS in Virginia and is now a consultant.

Because of the technical challenges, many believe the USDA has not sufficiently prioritized forest buffers. According to a recent report from the department, less than a third of cropland in the Bay watershed has any type of buffer — either forest or grass.

“We learned early on that you have to promote this work heavily, and you have to keep it up,” said Al Todd, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, and a former U.S. Forest Service liaison to the Bay Program who was instrumental in establishing its original forest buffer goal. “You can’t just let up. And I think we’ve really let up on the level of targeted outreach to try to accomplish this.”

USDA officials insist that forest buffers remain a top priority, but they acknowledge that the short supply of technical support can limit forest buffer planting.

Denise Coleman, NRCS Pennsylvania state conservationist, noted that signup figures clearly show that counties with a full-time person devoted to promoting forest buffers far outstrip adjacent counties that do not.

In Pennsylvania’s Bradford County, where the NRCS provides partial funding for a Chesapeake Bay Foundation staffer who promotes forest buffers, there have been 10 times as many acres of CREP plantings than in nearby Sullivan County. “So you can see, there is something to be said when a warm body is there,” Coleman noted.

In Pennsylvania — which has led the watershed in forest buffer plantings — the NRCS has tried to stretch its technical support staff by sharing the costs of positions with the CBF and other organizations. Still, she said, the number of people has declined.

“It is a physical staff capacity issue of how many people are out there to actually provide the technical assistance to producers and help them implement these practices,” Coleman said.

Contract renewals come due

She and others are concerned that capacity will be stretched thinner in coming years as the original 15-year CREP contracts begin to expire.

Maryland, which delved into CREP earlier than the other states, is the first to see contracts come up for renewal. So far, the renewal rate has been high for forested buffers, on the order of 90 percent, said Glenn Carowan, Farm Bill coordinator with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

“That’s significant when you look at the number of acres that we could have lost, but that we didn’t lose,” Carowan said. He, like others, said landowners appear more likely to retain forest buffers than grass buffers, both because they are harder to remove, but also because those who put in forest buffers recognized they were making a longer commitment with their land.

“Landowners tend to get very invested in their buffers,” said Diane Wilson, of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Conservation and Restoration. “They watch the trees grow. They get kind of attached to them.”

Nonetheless, working to re-enroll existing buffers will require time from technical assistance specialists who are already stretched thin, and take time from the approval and design of new buffers.

For many landowners, opting to stay in the program will be a major decision.

Those landowners are 15 years older than when they signed their original agreements, and may be more reluctant to obligate their heirs, or future owners, to buffer maintenance.

“If you are 35 or 45 and you sign a 15-year contract, that is one thing,” Carowan said. “If you are 65 or 70 and decide to sign a 15-year contract, that is a whole different ball game.”

It’s also likely that many buffer owners who want to stay in the program will find they are not eligible to renew contracts because their buffers fall short of certain thresholds, such as having at least 70 percent tree survival. In those cases, they would have to bring the buffers up to standards — likely spending their own money to do so — before they could re-enroll.

More leadership needed

If new, even more aggressive goals are to be met, buffer advocates say it will take more leadership from agencies and the Bay Program itself.

“There is absolutely a need to get the leadership behind this,” Todd said. “Reaching the riparian forest buffer goal is critical if states are going to meet their pollution reduction targets under the TMDL. We need a program that is not disjointed, but efficient, streamlined and consistent in terms of delivery and the level of effort that is put into it. That has not been the case and the program is really showing it.”

“Maybe the Bay is a great place to pilot some kind of alternative structure to CREP,” Todd added.

Changes to CREP that are commonly cited include streamlining the program to work more smoothly for participants, increasing technical assistance and potentially increasing incentives. For instance, some suggest boosting initial signup incentives and following the lead of Pennsylvania, where state and federal agencies offer a substantial cost-share maintenance payment to help with buffer upkeep. Giving landowners more flexibility in meeting planting goals is another priority.

Given the importance of forest buffers to the Bay, and the streams that feed it, buffer advocates say improving buffer programs is an effort worth making.

“The nitrogen removal value of having trees on the stream just blows everything else out of the water,” said the CBF’s Eisenbise. “Compared with other practices, it’s still the most cost-effective. And we are getting the most benefit in terms of looking at how streams function as a whole. I think you have to take a holistic approach.

“So you just have got to stay optimistic that we are going to figure out a way to do it.”