Farm with buffers along Choptank River, MD

A narrow forested buffer separates this farm field in Maryland from a creek that flows into the Choptank River.

In the most recent Bay Barometer report released by the Chesapeake Bay Program, one metric tracking progress toward a healthy Bay stands out: With a goal to plant forested buffers along 900 miles of streams each year, the Bay states in 2017 planted just 56 miles. It was the lowest annual planting total in 22 years.

Forested streamside buffers remain one of the most cost-effective ways to cut pollution from agricultural lands, trapping soil, manure and fertilizers before they can flow downstream to the Bay. The woeful lag in planting spells big trouble for the states as they design their final plans to meet federally mandated pollution reductions in the Bay by 2025.

That’s why it is imperative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reopen a key program that helps Bay farmers put forested buffers in the ground.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, pays farmers in the watershed an annual rent over a contract period of 10–15 years for land where they agree to plant protective barriers of native trees along streams. It also provides incentive payments and defrays the cost of designing and installing the buffers, as well as related practices like stream fencing and water systems.

On the farm, the buffers help stabilize stream banks; provide shade and cool the water for native fish; create habitat for wildlife; and enhance the aesthetic value of the landscape. Downstream in the Bay, the pollution reductions from buffers help to restore underwater grasses, reduce harmful algal blooms and shrink oxygen-deprived dead zones.

But CREP, the primary program for planting forested buffers in the watershed, stopped accepting new applications from farmers last September after the expiration of the 2014 Farm Bill. Despite the passage of a new bill reauthorizing the program, the USDA indicates it will likely not accept new enrollments until this fall. Put plainly, farmers willing to protect local streams from pollution can’t.

Additionally, approximately 34,000 acres of farmland in the Bay watershed currently enrolled in CREP and its parent program, the Conservation Reserve Program, are set to expire this year. When contracts expire, farmers no longer receive rental payments and are not obligated to keep their buffers. The closure of CREP means farmers with expiring contracts who want to continue their commitments may choose not to do so, putting those buffers at risk.

The delay couldn’t come at a worse time. Fewer miles of buffers means a heavier lift for states as they design their final watershed implementation plans, the steps that will make the final push to the 2025 deadline for meeting Bay restoration requirements. Last year’s midpoint assessment of how much progress states are making toward those goals noted that the planting of forested buffers needs to accelerate — not scale back.

There are three reasons to be optimistic about closing the gap.

First, many farmers in the watershed are willing and excited to plant forested buffers. In Pennsylvania, Chesapeake Bay Foundation restoration specialists report getting weekly calls from producers who are interested in planting buffers and signing up for CREP. Farmers who have worked with the CBF and state and federal partners to plant buffers in the past say they are eager to do more, noting the benefits buffers provide for native wildlife and flood management.

Second, a legislative effort led by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) incorporated substantial improvements to CREP in the new Farm Bill. The new measures ensure farmers have adequate financial support to maintain buffers and protect their investments. The bill also ensures farmers are fairly compensated for expenses associated with buffers, such as installing fencing along streams and providing alternative water sources for livestock.

Finally, the CBF and its partners last year launched the Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership to focus a diverse array of resources on forests and streamside buffers. The partnership is committed to planting 10 million new trees in priority landscapes in Pennsylvania by the end of 2025. Aerial surveys show 1.4 million acres of streamside land across the Bay watershed that could be converted from crops, pasture, or turf into forested buffers, according to the Bay Program.

But all of this momentum is at risk unless CREP reopens soon.

The biggest blow could be to farmers’ willingness to plant forested buffers in the future. Planning and ultimately planting a buffer can take months of effort — from designing the buffer alongside technical specialists to submitting paperwork, ordering trees and putting shovels in the dirt. Repeated interruptions of the CREP program undermine this significant investment of time and effort and hinder farmers’ ability to plan for the future. As a result, many farmers who want to enroll in CREP are understandably frustrated.

As Roger Rohrer, a farmer in Lancaster County, PA, said, “It’s a problem when we have people raising their hands and we can’t move on.”

We must support farmers who want to do the right thing for their communities and the Bay. The best way to do that is to reopen CREP as soon as possible. Farmers, and the Bay, can’t afford to wait.

Beth McGee is the director of science and agricultural policy at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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

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