Forest buffers, or the trees, shrubs and other plants that grow next to streams and rivers, are critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Forest buffers prevent pollution from entering waterways, stabilize stream banks, provide food and habitat to wildlife and keep streams cool during hot weather. Chesapeake Bay Program partners are working to restore 900 miles of forest buffers per year until 70 percent of all stream banks and shorelines in the watershed are buffered.
Forest buffers are the trees, shrubs and other plants that grow next to streams and rivers. Forest buffers are also called riparian forests or streamside forests.
Forest buffers are critical to clean water: they prevent pollution from entering waterways and stabilize stream banks. Forest buffers are also vital to wildlife: they provide critters with food and habitat and shade streams to the benefit of sensitive aquatic species.
Without forest buffers, polluted runoff from farms and developed areas would flow directly into rivers and streams. Forest buffers are a waterway’s last line of defense against pollution that washes off the land.
The deep root systems of streamside trees and shrubs hold soil in place, stabilizing stream banks and reducing the amount of sand, silt and sediment that can wash into waterways. Forest buffers also protect those on land from rising floodwaters by deflecting heavy river flow during large storms.
The trees, shrubs and other plants that make up forest buffers form layers of diverse habitats between land and water. More than half of the Chesapeake Bay region’s native species—including wood ducks, bald eagles, turtles and amphibians—depend on forest buffers for food, shelter and access to water at some point in their lives. Forest buffers also offer safe migration paths for wildlife, creating forest “corridors” that are critical to many species.
The leaf litter, seeds and other plant materials that forest buffers drop into the water form the foundation of the freshwater food chain, and fallen branches, logs and woody debris can create habitat for underwater critters. Insects, amphibians, crustaceans and small fish depend on this debris for food, shelter and spawning grounds. These small creatures serve as essential prey for larger species. Some small filter-feeders also process the excess pollution that is common in local waterways.
In summer, the leafy canopies of forest buffers shade rivers and streams. This shade helps keep water temperatures cool and consistent. Without it, water temperatures would rise rapidly, fueling the growth of harmful algae blooms and stressing sensitive species. Brook trout, for instance, live in cool, clear water, and depend on the shade that forest buffers provide.
Cooler water can also hold more oxygen, which aquatic species need to survive.
Because forest buffers can improve the health of local rivers and streams, forest buffer restoration is a critical part of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
Currently, an estimated 58 percent of the watershed’s 288,000 miles of stream banks and shorelines have forest buffers in place. But scientists have found that rivers and streams are not protected until 70 percent of their edges are buffered. Forest buffers have disappeared along many rivers and streams because of agriculture, development and other human activities.
Restoring forest buffers can be a cost-effective way to reduce pollution. Unlike some other conservation practices, the benefits of forest buffers increase over time as trees and shrubs grow and mature. And after their first few years in place, forest buffers need little maintenance.
Chesapeake Bay Program partners are working to restore and protect forest buffers across the watershed.
Although much progress has been made, plantings have slowed in recent years due to a number of factors, including a lack of resources, the high price of crop commodities and the tendency of the agricultural community to plant grass buffers rather than forested ones.
Since 1996, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware have planted more than 7,400 miles of forest buffers along rivers and streams.
In 2003, Bay Program partners set a goal to restore 900 miles of riparian forests in the watershed each year. This goal was renewed in the 2007 Forest Conservation Initiative, which was signed by all six Bay states and the District. This goal has not been met since 2002.
The federal government is also working to accelerate forest buffer restoration. In the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, federal agencies committed to restoring riparian forest buffers to 63 percent, or 181,440 miles, of the stream banks and shorelines in the watershed by 2025.
Some programs provide financial incentives to landowners who plant forest buffers on their properties. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), for instance, pays agricultural landowners to plant and maintain forest buffers on their farms.
Outreach and education are also critical parts of forest buffer restoration. The U.S. Forest Service distributes forest buffer publications and reaches out to landowners in person and online.
New geo-spatial tools are also available to help target, monitor and map forest buffers across the watershed. These tools, along with local and state streamside forest policies, will ensure that forest buffer restoration and conservation remains effective.
Newly planted forest buffers must be maintained for trees and shrubs to have the best chance of survival. Pruning and weeding, for instance, can help forest buffers grow stronger, making them more resilient to invasive species and other threats and better able to capture polluted runoff.
For Chesapeake Bay restoration to be a success, we all must do our part. Our everyday actions can have a big impact on the Bay. By making simple changes in our lives, each one of us can take part in restoring the Bay and its rivers for future generations to enjoy.
To support forest buffers in the Bay watershed, consider planting streamside trees and shrubs to create more wildlife habitat. You can also choose and use native plants to support the plants and animals that have adapted to this region.
Four winners were honored at the Chesapeake Watershed Forum.
Targeted tree plantings could improve the environment and our quality of life.
The Bay Program is using brook trout to promote land conservation and habitat restoration in headwater states.
Streamside trees are critical to the Bay, but planting rates continue to drop.
Winners have been crowned Chesapeake Forest Champions.
From July 2012 to June 2013, about 229 miles of forest buffers were planted along the Bay watershed’s streams and rivers. A total of 7,994 miles have been planted watershed-wide since 1996*.
*Prior to 2010, the Chesapeake Bay Program tracked riparian forest buffer planting in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In 2010, CBP began including planting data from New York, West Virginia and Delaware
Publication date: June 01, 2005 | Type of document: Report | Download: Electronic Version
Riparian forest buffers are essential components of maintaining long-term stream and watershed health and resilience in the Chesapeake Bay region. Riparian forest buffers also provide valuable ecological functions for wildlife habitat and…
Publication date: July 01, 2004 | Type of document: Report | Download: Electronic Version
Riparian lands provide a wealth of ecological benefits. For example, trees along the shoreline help to filter pollutants and sediment from runoff and groundwater before they enter the waterways. Trees also provide important habitat benefits…
Publication date: December 08, 2003 | Type of document: Directive | Download: Electronic Version
We, the members of the Chesapeake Executive Council, hereby reaffirm our commitment to restoring the Chesapeake Bay, in part, by protecting and restoring riparian lands along the watershed’s thousands of miles of stream and shoreline.…
Publication date: November 30, 2003 | Type of document: Report | Download: Electronic Version
As part of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, Chesapeake Bay Program partners agreed to establish expanded goals for riparian forest buffer mileage in the Bay watershed by 2003. In response to that commitment, the Chesapeake Bay Program…
Publication date: November 11, 2001 | Type of document: Backgrounder | Download: Electronic Version
Riparian forests are essential interfaces between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. They intercept surface runoff, subsurface flow and deeper ground water flows for purposes of removing or buffering effects from nutrients, pesticides or…
Publication date: June 01, 1998 | Type of document: Report | Download: Electronic Version
The purpose of this handbook is to provide professional land managers and planners with the latest information on the functions, design, establishment and management of riparian forest buffers.
Publication date: February 28, 1997 | Type of document: Report
This report contains background material that describes in more detail the technical basis for the recommendations and elaborates on the implementation options in the Final Report of the Riparian Forest Buffer Panel.
Publication date: December 31, 1996 | Type of document: Report | Download: Electronic Version
The use of demonstration sites for riparian forest buffer establishment is one way to help accomplish the objectives of communication, education, and monitoring.The riparian forest buffers in this document are located in agricultural, rural…
Publication date: December 31, 1996 | Type of document: Fact Sheet | Download: Electronic Version
Riparian forests are integral to the health of the Bay and its rivers for many reasons. Their position in the landscape makes these forests excellent buffers between upland areas and waters that eventually enter the Bay. Riparian forests…
Publication date: October 10, 1996 | Type of document: Adoption Statement | Download: Electronic Version
In past commitments, we agreed to reduce nutrients, to restore habitat, to improve access to thousands of miles of habitat for migratory fish, and to enhance watershed management by developing and implementing tributary-specific pollution…
Publication date: October 01, 1996 | Type of document: Report | Download: Electronic Version
This report contains the principal findings and recommendations of a Chesapeake Executive Council-appointed panel on riparian forest buffers. Background material which describes in more detail the technical basis for the recommendations and…
Publication date: August 01, 1996 | Type of document: Report | Download: Electronic Version
This publication is a collection of case-studies that highlight accomplishments of local governments and citizen organizations to recognize the importance of forests to their communities and to take action to retain and restore those…
Publication date: November 10, 1995 | Type of document: Backgrounder | Download: Electronic Version
Through the efforts of the USDA Forest Service, Northeastern Area, and its partners in the Forestry Workgroup, a riparian forest initative has brought more focus on the need to better manage riparian areas and to recognize forests along…
Publication date: August 01, 1995 | Type of document: Report
Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, USA, have agreed to reduce nutrient loadings to Chesapeake Bay by 40% by the year 2000. This requires control of nonpoint sources of nutrients, much of which comes from agriculture. Riparian forest…
Publication date: May 01, 1995 | Type of document: Report
On October 5-6, 1994, the Nutrient Subcommittee and Forestry Workgroup of the Chesapeake Bay Program hosted a conference on the subject of riparian forest buffers. Participants came together to discuss, debare and learn about the value of…
Publication date: October 14, 1994 | Type of document: Directive | Download: Electronic Version
We now recognize that forests along waterways, also known as "riparian forests," are an important resource that protects water quality and provides habitat and food necessary to support fish survival and reproduction. Used as buffers,…
Publication date: January 31, 1993 | Type of document: Report | Download: Electronic Version
This article discusses elements of the relationship between forests and water quality in the context of the forest buffer.