Looking at Bob Ingersoll’s farm, you’d never know that he had been growing hay for over 15 years. The fields that had produced hay—and corn before that—are now covered in native grasses and wildflowers. Last year, Ingersoll enrolled his almost 60-acre farm in Chestertown, Maryland, into the Washington College Center for Environment and Society’s (CES) Natural Lands Project.
This September morning, Ingersoll and Natural Lands Project Coordinator Dan Small walk around Ingersoll’s fields, observing the growth and pointing out the different species of wildflowers and grasses they planted only five months earlier.
Ingersoll got involved with the Natural Lands Project through the Chester River Association, one of the project’s sponsors. While he chose to enroll his entire farm, CES typically works with farmers and landowners to plant 100-foot grassland buffers on their land. That way, they can still get money from agricultural production and rented-out land for hunting—as well as a small income from the Natural Lands Project—but also sow the benefits of grassland buffers.
These buffers are known as a best management practice, or BMP, because they can absorb nutrients that run off of farm fields and prevent sediment from entering waterways. But alongside their water quality benefits, buffers can also provide ideal habitat for many species of animals.
Quail and habitat restoration
A large component of the Natural Lands Project is creating suitable grassland habitat for northern bobwhite quail. Quail used to be prevalent on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and many people in the area grew up hunting quail, but their populations have declined drastically since the mid-1900s—due in part to habitat loss.
When it comes to installing grassland buffers, Small says, “we found that there’s no real tangible benefit to the landowners or farmers if we just talk about water quality on the land.” However, if they grew up hunting quail, they have an emotional connection to the bird.
Quail require three types of habitat to be successful: open areas, grassy cover and woody cover. “We’re specifically looking to create warm season grass habitat,” says Small. Cool season grasses, like those typically found on lawns, grow thick—meaning small grassland birds like quail that require open ground can’t move through them. “Think of your lawn,” he says. “If that grew up, there’s no way a quail could walk through that.” Warm season grasses, on the other hand, grow in clumps, leaving plenty of space for quail.
One of the factors associated with the decline in quail populations is the lack of woody cover. The disappearance of hedgerows—a row of shrubs or low growing trees that typically form boundaries between farm fields—has had a huge impact on quail, according to Small. As farms got larger, those hedgerows were taken out, and quail lost an important place to go during the winter when the rest of the landscape is covered in snow.
For that reason, dispersed throughout the grasses and wildflowers, are colored markers labeling where they planted hedgerows. “Not only are we adding nesting habitat in all the grass, but we need to add winter habitat as well.”
Creating habitat suited for quail doesn’t just benefit them, but many other species as well. “We have a lot more small birds here than we did any year that I can ever remember, because there’s something there for them to eat,” says Ingersoll. “And butterflies! I’ve never ever seen so many butterflies.” He points out bees and finds a fuzzy caterpillar on one of the wildflowers. Small points out the call of a bobolink, a bird that requires grasslands on its migration. Even deer take advantage of the tall grass cover, as evidenced by the imprint from where a deer had been lying not too long before.
A long-term commitment
It takes about three years for the grasses to get established, but once that happens, they still need to be managed. “You can’t just put it in and walk away,” says Small. After they’re established, they will be managed in part through controlled burns. As the grasses grow, they begin to lay down on top of each other, making it difficult for the quail to move on the ground. “Controlled fire is a really good method to wipe the slate clean,” says Small. “You don’t really hurt the native [plants] because they can respond to that and pop back up.”
Landowners who enroll in the Natural Lands Project sign a 10-year contact with CES. This long-term commitment is a promise both to CES that there is sufficient time committed to establish habitat on the land, but also to the landowner that CES won’t plant the new habitat and then leave. They work with landowners over that time to make sure that the land is in good condition.
“The landowner, somebody like myself, is relying on the best information I can get from Dan to make this as successful as I possibly can,” says Ingersoll. “If we didn’t have the backup, it’d be like learning it all over again. And I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Photos and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Video by Will Parson
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.
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.
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.
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.”