Our streams could just die for more riparian forest buffers

Studies have shown that when landowners are asked specifically to install a riparian forest buffer, receive information about the positive benefits, and are provided with incentives, nine out of 10 agreed to plant trees. (Dave Harp)

A few weeks ago, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay hosted a forum in Buckeystown, MD, where more than 100 representatives from federal and state agencies, nonprofits and businesses, as well as the scientific and farming communities, met to discuss riparian buffers.

This community of conservationists has been planting trees along waterways for more than 25 years. Sometimes, it seems more like a life’s mission to re-establish these links between land and water that protected our watershed’s creeks and rivers for eons.

The forum revealed that we are still learning. Preventing pollution by returning a streamside area on cropland or pasture to a functioning forest can be a difficult task. It is a financial investment and a labor of love requiring personal attention and patience.

While the forum included success stories and lessons learned in the last 25 years, there was a significant undercurrent of frustration. When it comes to riparian forest buffers, why is something so obviously critical to the future health of our watershed so hard to achieve? Why does this high priority in cleanup plans lack strong commitment from many of the agencies responsible for implementing those plans? Why is a practice with such substantial federal investment so difficult to deliver to landowners?

Since the Chesapeake Bay Program set its first goal for riparian forest buffers back in 1996, more than 8,000 miles of 35– to 150–foot-wide strips of trees have been planted along the streams and rivers that make their way to the Bay. From the mountain valleys of New York and Pennsylvania to the rolling hills of the Piedmont in Virginia to the sandy Coastal Plain in Maryland, farmers and conservation groups have been planting trees — millions of them.

This was a new and novel best management practice in the 1990s. Now, riparian forest buffers are a mainstream BMP in all of the Bay states. In fact, the watershed implementation plans designed to achieve the pollution reductions called for in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load propose the establishment of more than 185,000 acres or 15,000-plus miles of new riparian forest buffer by 2025. This BMP is the second most significant practice counted on to meet the agricultural nitrogen-reduction goals.

There is broad consensus in the science on the benefits of buffers: reducing pollution, processing nutrients already in the stream, reducing downstream flooding and sustaining fish habitat. It may even be impossible to restore the health of our waterways and freshwater fisheries without these streamside forests.

The results are being measured, too. My friend and conservation colleague, Bobby Whitescarver, has measured the dramatic reductions in E-coli levels from upstream to downstream of his Virginia cattle farm. His forest buffers not only prevent his cows from polluting the stream but they are cleaning the water coming from his upstream neighbors without buffers. His herd health has improved, and his veterinary bills reduced.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in Maryland specifically to compensate farmers for the loss of cropland or pasture when they converted land along their streams to forest. CREP, which spread from Maryland to states across the nation, was a game changer, jump-starting a major effort to plant streamside trees and to “rent” the land not being farmed.

In the early 1990s, less than 100 miles of riparian forest were being planted in the watershed; by 2002, more than 1,000 miles per year were being planted through CREP. Talk of tree seedling shortages was common.

But after early success, new forest buffer plantings declined. In 2013, just 200 miles of new buffer was established in the watershed, and by 2016, it was less than 100 miles. Nearly 20 years after CREP was born, we are back to where we started.

The most recent Bay Barometer, the Bay Program’s annual report card on the restoration effort was full of hopeful news. Every indicator of progress was up — except two — wetlands and riparian forest buffers. Even with all of the science and interest, as well as federal and state incentives, the restoration of forest buffers on farms is at a standstill. Why aren’t more people troubled by this?

The decline in progress has its roots in a combination of factors.

All incentive programs have early adopters: conservation-minded farmers who readily enroll. In time, reaching more hesitant farmers requires greater investment in outreach and technical assistance. These resources lag far behind the challenge. Plus, government programs lack the flexibility to effectively engage the private and nonprofit sectors.

Commodity prices fluctuate, too, making farmers reluctant to remove cropland from production. Farmers are businessmen, and as one farmer once told me, “I have to look at whether I can make more money farming the land or farming the government!”

Rules for federal programs like CREP also keep changing and multiple starts and stops resulting from the actions —or inaction — of Congress create uncertainty and delays in funding. This adds more frustration to already complicated programs for farmers and the conservationists trying to help them enroll.

Lack of maintenance is also a problem. Most agree that more support and creative strategies for maintenance would be worth the investment. Yet, after the expense of creating the buffer, government programs continue to provide only $5-$10/acre to make sure the trees grow. There is no better advertisement for riparian buffers than healthy trees and no bigger barrier than dead ones!

CREP may also have a fundamental flaw in its structure and management. It is split between two U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies, the Farm Service Agency, which has the lead for the program and its financial payments to farmers, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is charged with delivery to farmers. While the FSA has expanded incentives and outreach, the NRCS has not generally expanded its technical assistance or outreach for buffers. This creates a disconnect, and the health of streams falls through the cracks.

To be successful, USDA agencies will need to place a higher priority on riparian forests in the delivery of their programs, demonstrate stronger collaboration and create better linkages between programs aimed at improving the health of streams. Studies have shown that when landowners are asked specifically to install a riparian forest buffer, receive information about the positive benefits, and are provided with incentives, nine out of 10 agreed to plant trees.

Farmers are some of the best spokespersons. One farmer at the forum asked, “Where is the major political campaign for healthy streams? We need strong marketing to reinvigorate interest.”

In 2014, then USDA Undersecretaries Robert Bonnie and Michael Scuse called for a reboot of USDA forest buffer efforts: a CREP 2.0. With a new Farm Bill coming up in 2018, it is time to take another very hard look at programs to restore agricultural streams through forest buffers and other practices. It is also time to revolutionize a structure that can accomplish the outcomes for which they were designed. With as much on the line for the states, maybe it’s time to give USDA funds directly to states and put them in the driver’s seat to deliver healthy streams.

Considering the enormous benefits that streamside forest buffers provide, their power in reducing the impacts of actions on the land and those upstream, and the critical dependence on riparian forest buffers to meet TMDL goals, efforts to reinvigorate this work are essential.

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

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