Farming Magazine - February, 2012


Woods and Water

Forest buffers help boost stream health in Chesapeake watershed
By Patrick White

The CREP program, in partnership with states, offers cost-sharing and other financial incentives for landowners to plant forested buffers throughout the Chesapeake watershed.
Photo courtesy of US Forest Service.

A woodlot is something that is usually purchased, inherited or managed. Sometimes, though, it must first be planted. That's the case along the Chesapeake, where forest buffers are being created to help improve water quality. Trees planted along rivers and streams help to shade and lower water temperatures, while reducing sediment and nutrients making their way into the water. Like other wooded areas, forested buffers also stabilize soils and provide wildlife habitat.

However, forest buffers are quite different than a traditional woodlot - foremost because human intervention is often necessary for their establishment. The Chesapeake Bay Program has been working to restore buffers since 1996. The early years of the initiative resulted in dramatic achievements. An early goal to restore 2,010 miles of forest buffers by 2010 was actually met in 2002. That goal is now 10,000 miles of forest buffers throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Visually, it's been striking to see the difference with buffers of trees now protecting so many miles of rivers and streams.

"It's huge - even in just the past 10 years the difference has been very dramatic," says Sally Claggett, U.S. Forest Service liaison to the Chesapeake Bay Program (, a collective effort of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and scores of other federal departments and agencies, along with dozens of nonprofit groups.

Much of the funding for the retirement of agriculture land and the establishment of forest buffers comes through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a partnership run through the Farm Services Agency. "In general, the federal government will pay 50 percent of the cost of the project. The states will often take that percentage up to 75 percent or higher. And, in some cases, all of the costs are covered and the landowner doesn't pay out anything," explains Claggett. There's also an annual rental payment made to the landowner based on the soil productivity of the site, she adds.

Since 2002, however, incentives to plant forest buffers have decreased in some states and progress has slowed, says Claggett. She cites Pennsylvania as one state that continues to lead the way with a well-organized, highly effective team effort. "Pennsylvania has been outstanding in delivering their program," praises Claggett.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is a CREP partner in Pennsylvania, and in that state alone the partnership has worked with nearly 5,000 landowners since 2000 to complete about 24,000 acres of forested buffers at a cost of more than $100 million, explains David Wise, CBF's watershed restoration manager for Pennsylvania. "CREP has about a dozen different conservation practices that farmers and landowners can enroll in. The forested buffer is the practice that we focus on, and it's one of the very few practices that nonfarmers can enroll in," Wise explains. "If you have rural land in central Pennsylvania or anywhere in the Bay watershed, you are eligible to enroll."

Wise says that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is a major funder of CREP in the state, and their cost share contribution often allows landowners to take part in forest buffer restoration at a net profit. "Between what Farm Services Agency pays and what DEP pays, most projects receive at least 100 percent reimbursement for costs," he explains.

Wise says that during the first several years CBF was involved with planting tree buffers it became clear just how important it is to maintain trees in the first few years after planting. "We definitely had failures in the early going; we saw a lot of dead trees," he recalls. "If we had talked to nurserymen or orchard growers, they would have said to us, 'You can't plant a tree and just walk away.'" Wise says the lesson has been learned, and today tremendous attention is paid to caring for the trees in the vulnerable years after they are planted.

For example, CREP plantings are now done with tree shelters - plastic tubes 4 to 6 inches in diameter supported by some zip ties and held up by a wooden stake, Wise explains. "That plastic shelter provides protection from the deer, and also provides a way to apply herbicides quickly and inexpensively without damaging the tree," he states. Trees are often planted in rows rather than in random locations to help make it easier for landowners or contractors to mow and apply herbicides. "And there is now funding - I believe it may only available in Pennsylvania - for farmers to do post-planting care of the trees," says Wise. "There is 100 percent funding for critical herbicide applications in the first three years after planting."

He says that the cost-to-benefit ratio makes it clear this money is well spent: Research shows that twice-a-year herbicide applications during the first four years can increase survival rates from about 16 percent to about 96 percent, and the growth rate will double versus trees where no herbicide is applied to control competing vegetation. To meet the requirements of the program, landowners need to carry out these maintenance practices and ensure that the trees become healthy and established.

The CBF has seven field staff covering 22 counties to provide technical assistance of forest buffer projects. [The group is a contracted agent of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is the lead technical services agency for CREP.] These field staff work with landowners to guide them through the process. For example, each state involved in the program has a list of species that have been shown to do well in forest buffer installations.

"By and large, the deciduous species do better," notes Sally Claggett with the U.S. Forest Service. "But some people want pine because they want the option of selling [the timber] some day." In general, it helps to plant trees that can adapt to different environments, including perhaps occasional flooding or drought. "For example, ash is something that we used to plant a lot, but now that we have emerald ash borer, we've just taken that off the list in most places," Claggett explains. "Typical riparian species include sycamore and river birch."

Oftentimes there is a requirement to plant more than one species of tree in order to increase diversity and guard against a single pest or disease threatening all trees in the buffer. In Pennsylvania, CBF staff work with landowners to select species - preferably at least eight different types of trees and shrubs - from a master list. "If there are pockets that are wetter or drier, they will look for specific species that will work there," says Wise.

It's up to the landowner to select a contractor, and different contractors have different approaches to planting, says Wise. "Sometimes it's just a function of what [trees] are available on the market," he points out. Because bare root planting stock typically has a limited planting window in the spring, most trees are planted as containerized seedlings, which can be planted from fall through the spring when the ground isn't frozen.

There are some specific planting requirements. "You need to plant right up to the water - that is the point for stream bank stabilization," says Claggett. "We encourage forest buffers to extend 100 feet [away from the water], but the minimum for this conservation practice is 35 feet [from the top of the bank]." In Pennsylvania, because of the generous funding available, the state's DEP requires a 50-foot minimum forest buffer to qualify for that funding. Planting density requirements vary from state to state and are determined by forestry agencies in each state, explains Claggett. "There's quite a bit of a range, from about 110 trees per acre to over 400 trees per acre."

It's important to note that the CREP forest buffer funding covers more than just the cost of the tree stock and contracting crews to plant them. For example, says Wise, if there are livestock on the property, CREP funding will pay for fencing to exclude the livestock, stabilize crossings, install alternative watering systems and provide for other needed infrastructure improvements. "This allows the farmer to manage his livestock - at a net advantage, really - and have the tree buffers planted," he explains.

Wise says that most of the sites where forest buffer plantings take place come into the program as grasslands, some as active livestock pasture. "They may have been mowed for recreation, or had hay taken off them," he says. "Or, it could be land that's largely idle that just hasn't regenerated into trees because grasses - along with the voles that grasses harbor - are enormously effective at preventing natural regeneration of trees."

Some might question the benefits of planting trees in such areas, convinced that the grasses can also help to stabilize soils, etc. Wise points to the Stroud Water Research Center (, one of the premier stream research facilities in the country, which happens to be located in Pennsylvania. "Their job is to understand how freshwater stream systems work," says Wise. "And they are a huge proponent of forest buffers because of the huge role that trees play in stream health."

One Stroud research project, he says, looked specifically at the differences in water quality of streams flowing through woodlots versus those flowing through healthy, grass-covered pastures. "It was really a look at the effectiveness of grass buffers versus forest buffers," says Wise. "One of the most striking findings was that segments of streams that had trees on their banks were removing nitrogen at 200 to 900 percent the rates of the adjoining segments that didn't have trees. Nitrogen is the singular main pollutant that's of concern in the Chesapeake and many other water bodies." And, total biological activity was found to be five times higher in streams with forest cover.

These findings, along with the many other water quality benefits of forested buffers already long known, show why it's so important to continue planting trees along stream banks, Wise emphasizes. He also notes that the value of improving water quality isn't exclusive to the Chesapeake watershed. For farmers and landowners outside the Chesapeake watershed and in states where CREP funding is not available, he notes that a separate program, called Continuous CRP, is available. "That program has cost sharing for forest buffers and is available nationwide," Wise notes.

He urges all landowners interested in planting forest buffers to explore this and other programs that might be available to them. "We know now that trees are doing immense work in forest buffers, but in order to realize the benefits, we first need to get them planted," he states.

In Pennsylvania, landowners interested in planting forest buffers can call 800-941-CREP. Those in other states can learn more by visiting the FSA Web site at

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for unusual stories and cutting-edge installations.