Forest buffers are areas of trees, shrubs and plants adjacent to a body of water, such as a stream or river. Forest buffers are also known as riparian forests or streamside forests.
Riparian forest buffers provide enormous benefits to the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its streams, creeks and rivers. Forest buffers filter and absorb pollution from runoff before it flows into waterways. They also stabilize stream banks, which reduces erosion and keeps rivers and streams healthy.
Forest buffers are also vital to life on land and in the water. Trees and shrubs along the edges of waterways provide habitat for numerous species, including birds, fish, mammals and amphibians. Additionally, forest buffers help keep river waters cool, an important factor for many fish.
Riparian forests are a last line of defense against pollution that washes off the land.
Forest buffers can reduce nutrient and sediment pollution to local waterways by 30 to 90 percent. Without forest buffers, polluted runoff from farms and developed areas flows directly into the nearest river or stream.
Leaves and branches that fall into the water provide critical habitat for aquatic life in streams. Insects, amphibians, crustaceans and small fish rely on woody debris from riparian forests for food, shelter and spawning. These creatures may be tiny, but they are an essential part of the Bay food web because they serve as prey for larger species. Some small filter-feeders also help process excess pollution common in local waterways.
Trees, shrubs and other plants in a forest buffer create layers of diverse habitats that form a transition from the land to the water. More than half of the Bay region’s native species – ranging from wood ducks, eagles and songbirds to foxes, turtles and amphibians – depend on riparian forest habitats at some point in their lives for food, shelter and access to water.
In addition to creating permanent habitats, forest buffers offer safe migration paths for wildlife. These forest “corridors” are critical for many species.
In summer, the leafy canopy of forest buffers shades rivers and streams. Shade is important because it helps keep water temperatures cool and consistent, especially in small streams. Cooler water holds more oxygen, which all species need to survive.
Without shade, water temperatures in streams can rise rapidly, leading to increased algae growth. Even slightly elevated water temperatures can stress fish and other aquatic species. For example, brook trout can only live in clear, cold freshwater streams, so they need the shade that forest buffers provide.
Trees have deep root systems that hold soil in place and allow more water to soak into the ground. These functions help stabilize stream banks and reduce erosion. Forest buffers also protect against flood waters by deflecting heavy river flows during large rain storms.
This three-zone riparian forest model shows how an average forest buffer works.
Forest buffer restoration is a critical part of cleaning up the Bay. Riparian forests help improve the health of local rivers and streams, which eventually flow to the Chesapeake.
Scientists have found that rivers and streams are adequately protected when at least 70 percent of their edges are buffered by forests. Currently, an estimated 55 percent of the Bay watershed’s 288,000 miles of stream banks and shorelines have forest buffers in place. Along many waterways, forest buffers have disappeared because of human activities – particularly agriculture and development.
Restoring forest buffers is also a cost-effective way to reduce pollution. Unlike some other conservation practices, the benefits of forest buffers increase over time as trees grow and mature. After the first few years, forest buffers need very little maintenance, which can be costly for other practices.
Chesapeake Bay Program partners – including federal and state forestry and natural resource agencies, local governments and non-profit organizations – are working actively to restore and protect forest buffers throughout the Bay watershed.
Although much progress has been made, forest buffer plantings have slowed in recent years due to many factors, including lack of resources, uninformed land owners and the high price of crop commodities.
Since 1996, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia have planted more than 7,200 miles of forest buffers along stream banks and shorelines.
Bay Program partners continue to work toward meeting their goal of restoring 900 miles of riparian forests across the Bay watershed each year. This goal was established in 2003 and renewed in the 2007 Forest Conservation Initiative, which Delaware, New York and West Virginia also signed.
However, the goal has not been met since 2002, when greater incentives resulted in more than 1,000 miles planted. In the future, forest buffer plantings in Delaware, New York and West Virginia will be included in the annual mileage count, which will help the Bay Program reach its goal.
The federal government is also doing its part to help accelerate progress toward restoring riparian forests. In the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order strategy, federal agencies committed to increase the amount of forest buffers along the Bay watershed’s rivers and streams to 63 percent by 2025. This translates to a rate of 900 miles per year.
Bay Program partners are involved with several innovative programs that provide financial incentives to land owners who plant forest buffers on their property. One of these is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which pays agricultural land owners to plant and maintain forest buffers on their properties. CREP is one of the most active water quality restoration initiatives in the Bay region because it provides greater incentives to land owners than other federal cost-share practices.
The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Forest Service are working together with state forestry agencies to increase the use of CREP and plant more riparian forests. This partnership is developing tools to target forest buffer plantings in the most critical areas.
Outreach and education is also a critical part of restoring forest buffers. The U.S. Forest Service Chesapeake Bay Office publishes forest buffer publications and works with partners to reach out to land owners in person and online. The office has also added additional staff members to increase outreach and help accelerate riparian forest restoration.
Additionally, new tools are available to help target, monitor and map forest buffers throughout the Bay watershed. These tools, along with riparian forest policies at the local and state levels, will ensure that forest buffer restoration and conservation is effective.
Newly planted forest buffers must be properly maintained so plants and trees have the best chance of survival. Maintenance such as pruning and weeding helps forest buffers grow stronger, making them more resilient and better able to capture pollution. This is especially crucial during the first three to five years after planting, when trees are most vulnerable to weeds, invasive species and other threats.
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.
Do you know someone that is keeping our forests healthy? Nominate them to be a Chesapeake Forest Champion!
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.