I often find myself playing what I call the “stream game” while looking at digital maps. It’s a simple game involving aerial imagery and reconnaissance for future streamside, or “riparian,” tree plantings. I start at the property I’m working on, which has a “naked” stream but one that, if I have my way, soon will be lined with a wide buffer of young trees. Then I follow the stream through the landscape — and get increasingly upset about how few trees are along it and how little forest cover there is in general.
It’s admittedly a pretty bad game. It lacks objectives, it’s impossible to win or lose, and it makes me feel terrible about the condition of our landscape. The presence or absence of a riparian forest around a stream is a strong determinant of its health. Those naked streams have unstable banks, less protection from runoff and little food for aquatic invertebrates. Plus, they likely get too hot in the summer to harbor many fish. I don’t think many people try to harm streams or aquatic life, but by choosing to farm or mow land that should be a riparian forest, that’s precisely what they’re doing — on property after property, click after click of the map.
To me, one of the hardest parts of being a restoration professional is knowing this painful truth: We live in a landscape that is often denuded of nature. We got here not because of a few distant bad actors, but because of millions of uninformed decisions made by millions of individuals over hundreds of years. Restoring a creek takes decades of successful education and conservation efforts in the entire watershed. It isn’t enough for one farmer to adopt soil health practices and plant a riparian forest buffer; their neighbors need to do so as well if we want the stream to teem with life.
This work is slow and difficult. There is still so much left to do and it can be hard to feel optimistic while playing the stream game — though every so often it can make my day. Last winter I was clicking around the map, feeling dejected as usual, until I came across what was clearly a young riparian forest buffer. The trees were in a tidy grid to facilitate maintenance mowing, and I could see the shadows of some of the trees’ young crowns! It took me a second longer to realize, with even more delight, that as the Pennsylvania forest program manager at the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, I had coordinated the planting of that buffer.
It’s easy to feel hopeless when most of what you see is ecological destruction, especially in the lonely glow of a computer monitor. Thinking back, the stream game started as a way to explore new buffer planting opportunities, not as a reminder of how much work there is to do. And as I saw that young forest growing, I recalled that progress is not just possible, but a cinch if you have enough people power.
Those 800 trees were planted by volunteers in April 2019. Staff from the township met me at sunup that morning (and brought coffee!). While I placed the trees for planting, they distributed stakes and shelters and set up the volunteer registration station. When the volunteers arrived, joyful chaos ensued. The first wave was made up of the Lititz Run Watershed Alliance, the Donegal Chapter of Trout Unlimited and other individuals from the community. A few hours later, a large group of Franklin & Marshall College students arrived. Then the college’s volleyball team showed up to help — followed, unexpectedly, by another sports team and a fraternity. I finished planting around noon with the frat brothers, a little dazed about the 150 volunteers who came to help. That is something to be hopeful about!
In the two years since the planting, the township has diligently taken care of their trees. If it wasn’t for their hard work mowing and spraying, I may not have even noticed the site. Without maintenance, it would look identical to a hayfield from the aerial. The planting also owes its success so far to one volunteer in particular: a “Riparian Ranger” who asked not to be named here but has spent countless hours tending to the trees. The Riparian Rangers, a volunteer corps created by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, was formed to care for and monitor forest planting sites to ensure they grow to mature forests. Planting trees is quick, fun and gets lots of attention. Tending to them is long, arduous and unglamorous work, but we have scores of volunteers who choose to spend their free time helping — under the blazing sun and up to their knees in stinging nettle — because they care. That is also something to be hopeful about!
The amount of forest cover, erosion and nutrient runoff in the upland parts of the watershed also play a critical role in its health. Sure, we need landowners who own riparian land to get on board with conservation, but we also need our communities to understand and engage with our efforts, or else we can’t be upset that millions of people are making millions of uninformed decisions.
Agricultural land provides a tremendous opportunity to implement cost-efficient conservation practices that directly improve stream quality, but this work cannot solely be the responsibility of the farming community. Farmers need help, and our communities can provide that support, whether it entails planting trees, tending to them or simply donating to conservation organizations. Environmental health is a public health issue, after all. The more people we have in the movement, the more powerful it will be.
I believe we must be clear about how much work is left to do in restoring the Chesapeake Bay watershed. We need to remember that things have substantially improved over the past 50 years, and that they continue to do so with every tree planted, every conservation practice embraced and every resident engaged or informed.
Keep your eye on those naked streams, but don’t forget to tell your neighbors, friends and family — and anyone else who will listen — that streams need trees. Don’t forget to invite them to a tree planting this fall. We’re all in this together, and we need each other to make progress.
Ryan Davis is manager of the Pennsylvania Forests Projects for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.