Experts in forestry at the Chesapeake Bay Program say restoration of forested areas along creeks and streams, known as riparian forest buffers, has mostly declined since its peak of 815 miles restored in 2005. In 2011, however, only 240 miles of forest buffers were restored in all the Bay jurisdictions – one-third to one-quarter of what was done just six years ago.
In 1996, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia signed an agreement to restore 2,010 miles of forests along streams by 2010 in order to protect them from polluted runoff. Restoration efforts surged in the next six years and by 2002 the states had met their ten year goal. In the mid-2000’s combined reporting from the three big Bay states showed an average of 756 miles between 2003 and 2006. Since 2007, all the Bay jurisdictions have been working toward a goal of restoring forest buffers at a rate of 900 miles per year. This same restoration rate was incorporated into the federal Executive Order strategy which strives for 14,400 additional miles to be restored by 2025.
Since 1996, agricultural landowners have created most forest buffers so that excess nutrients in runoff could be absorbed by the trees and kept out of local waters. Although trees have substantial value to a healthy ecosystem, higher agriculture commodity prices in recent years have meant it is more lucrative for farmers to keep buffer areas in crops. This, combined with an emphasis and additional funding for other conservation practices such as cover crops, has meant fewer riparian forest buffers planted each year. Fortunately, farm bill programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, continue to provide an attractive financial incentive to agricultural landowners to create these buffers.
Historically, the Bay region was 95 percent forested. Forested lands play a key role in the health of streams, lands and large parts of the Bay itself since the landscape has evolved to function on the benefits they provide. Large tracts of trees act as an enormous sponge, filtering and using up excess nitrogen and phosphorus from rainwater runoff and removing any pollutants from the air. Those forested lands along streams or creeks are especially important since they shade the waters and maintain cooler water temperatures in summer heat, an important factor for the iconic brook trout and other fish that are sensitive to water conditions. In autumn, trees drop leaves into streams and creeks, providing important, specific nutrients to the local ecosystem and its creatures. Finally, strong root systems of a forest hold stream banks in place thereby reducing erosion and sedimentation of the waters.
With the establishment of the Chesapeake Executive Order and local plans to build healthy waters throughout the region, there is renewed interest in maintaining healthy forests and restoring riparian forest buffers. The Chesapeake Forest Restoration Strategy, now out in draft form, outlines the importance of forests and the actions needed to restore them.
Forest Buffer Restoration: By the Numbers
1996-2002 (Pa., Md., Va.): 2,311 miles
2003 (Pa., Md., Va.): 726 miles
2004 (Pa., Md., Va.): 754 miles
2005 (Pa., Md., Va.): 815 miles
2006 (Pa., Md., Va.): 729 miles
2007 (Pa., Md., Va.): 385 miles
2008 (Pa., Md., Va.): 449 miles
2009 (Pa., Md., Va.): 721 miles
2010 (All watershed states): 337 miles
2011 (All watershed states): 240 miles