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Bay Blog: riparian


Forest buffer plantings make progress, fall short of annual target

Trees and shrubs planted along the shores of the rivers, streams and creeks that flow into the Chesapeake Bay play a key role in improving water quality in the region. But according to Chesapeake Bay Program experts, the rate of plantings has continued to decline. Between July 2014 and June 2015, about 64 miles of forest buffers were planted along creeks and streams in the Bay watershed. While this marks movement toward the outcome, it remains below the 900-mile-per-year goal.

A recently planted riparian forest buffer borders an agricultural field along Emory Creek, which flows into the Corsica River in Queen Anne's County, Md.

Streamside trees and shrubs—called riparian forest buffers—provide a multitude of environmental benefits. They reduce erosion from stream banks, prevent nutrients and other pollution from entering waterways, provide food and habitat to wildlife and keep stream temperatures cool and consistent, benefiting brook trout and other sensitive species that thrive in cooler temperatures. Because of their ability to efficiently trap and filter pollutants carried by stormwater runoff, forest buffers are considered one of the most cost-effective best management practices.

More than 8,000 miles of forest buffers have been restored across the watershed since 1996, but recent years have seen a sharp decline in the planting rate. In 2010, watershed states planted 359 miles of forest buffers—nearly 40 percent of the 900 mile-per-year goal. But in 2015, the entire watershed planted just seven percent of the annual target.

Many complicated factors have affected the restoration of forest buffers, including a lack of coordination among agencies, underutilized funding programs and insufficient information and assistance for farmers and landowners. To meet these challenges, partners across the region, facilitated by forestry experts at the Bay Program, are working to better coordinate on the delivery of buffer programs by federal, state and local agencies; align opportunities to restore forest buffer programs with compatible land management programs; and enhance existing forest buffer programs to make them more appealing to landowners.

In 2007, Chesapeake Bay watershed states committed to restoring 900 miles of forest buffers per year—a rate that was incorporated into the 2010 Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, which calls for a total of 14,400 miles to be restored by 2025. As part of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the states reaffirmed the 900-mile-per-year goal and committed to restoring and conserving existing buffers until at least 70 percent of streamside areas in the watershed are forested.

Learn more about the Bay Program’s work to restore forest buffers.


From the Field: Linking land and water in brook trout conservation

In rural West Virginia, a fisherman casts his bright green line into a mountain stream. The stream is clear, the fish are biting and it takes just minutes to make a catch.

Dustin Wichterman, Potomac Headwaters Project Coordinator with Trout Unlimited, dips his net into the water and reveals a 10-inch brook trout. Its olive green body is flecked with red and gold, and its mere presence here is a welcome sign of health for the Pendleton County waterway.

Native to the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, the eastern brook trout is a sensitive species that needs cold, clean water to survive. But as regional water quality has declined, so, too, have brook trout populations, leading to lost revenue and diminished fishing opportunities for headwater states.

Brook trout play a critical role in the watershed: they are an important part of the region’s natural heritage, a driver of economic growth and an indicator of environmental health. For these reasons, brook trout restoration was a listed outcome in the federal Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Bay Watershed. And for the past two years, brook trout conservation has been a top goal for the Chesapeake Bay Program.

From the Field: Linking land and water in brook trout conservation from Chesapeake Bay Program on Vimeo.

Through the Bay Program’s Habitat Goal Implementation Team, whose members work to protect and restore wetlands, woods and other habitats across the watershed, brook trout have benefited from stream restoration, fish passage renewal and tree plantings.

As odd as it might seem, the health of a fish depends not just on the health of the creek, stream or river that it calls home; it is also tied to the health of the surrounding land. And poor land management, increasing development and expanding urbanization have been cited as leading factors in brook trout decline.

“This fish is a living symbol of how actions on land affect the health of our local waterways,” said team coordinator Jennifer Greiner.

The removal of streamside trees, for instance, is a common consequence of agricultural or residential development, as seedlings are trampled by grazing cattle or trees are felled for suburban growth. But a missing forest buffer means bad news for brook trout when stream banks erode, excess sediment ruins spawning beds and an absence of shade pushes water temperatures into a range that brook trout cannot withstand.

When, on the other hand, trees and shrubs are allowed to grow along waterways, their runoff-trapping roots keep the water clean and their shade-producing leaves keep the water cold.

So Greiner and her fellow team members have worked to bring brook trout into the land-use discussion, pushing the latest brook trout distribution data out to doers and decision-makers in the watershed. Because when land managers know where brook trout are, they are more likely to take the fish into account in land-use decisions.

Land trusts in headwater states have also found that brook trout can push private landowners to conserve, and Goal Implementation Team partners—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture Partnership among them—are using the iconic fish to promote on-the-ground restoration of riparian forest buffers.

Whether a farmer installs a fence that keeps livestock out of local rivers or a landowner decides to plant a series of streamside trees, education and engagement are critical to conservation.

“By becoming educated and engaged, landowners are able to protect the streams on their land for future generations,” Greiner said. “By protecting and restoring stream habitat, the brook trout, along with other species, are also protected for future generations to enjoy.”

Catherine Krikstan's avatar
About Catherine Krikstan - Catherine Krikstan is a web writer at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She began writing about the watershed as a reporter in Annapolis, Md., where she covered algae blooms and climate change and interviewed hog farmers and watermen. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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