Chesapeake Bay Program announces highest number of forest buffers planted across watershed since 2016

While miles of forest buffers have increased each year since 2019, the gains have yet to offset losses Download
Annapolis, Md. ()
A view from the sky of a stream winding through farm fields, with mature trees on either side of it.
Forest buffers separate farm fields from the West Branch Susquehanna River as it flows through Clinton County, Pa. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

In 2023, partners working across the Chesapeake Bay watershed restored 640.5 miles of forest buffers, the highest number of new forest buffers restored since 2016. The advancement of forest buffer restoration is in part due to increased state and federal investments in programs for landowners, including funding provided through the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Additionally, recent progress is likely due to increased implementation of flexible buffer programs that complement the existing Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). Through CREP, landowners are financially compensated for planting or maintaining forest buffers on their property, as the trees take up space that could be otherwise used for commercial gains such as farming. New buffer programs have gained traction by awarding funds on a rolling basis (rather than an annual), making funding available quickly, providing support for maintenance of trees, limiting or eliminating out-of-pocket costs and making funds available for a wider range of landowners.

Forest buffers, also known as riparian forest buffers or streamside buffers, are forests growing near a stream or river. Critical to clean water and fish habitat, these trees absorb nutrient and sediment runoff, protect against erosion, reduce the impact of floods and make the water cooler, among other benefits.

The Forest Buffers Outcome included in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement has a target of restoring 900 miles of forest buffers each year across the entire watershed. Federal, state and local agencies coordinate with landowners and conservation groups to meet this goal, planting new forest buffers on both public and private land. Partners came closest to reaching the ambitious 900 mile a year goal in 2016 when they planted 676.4 miles (about 75% attainment of the goal), but progress lagged in the ensuing years. However, since 2019, the number of forest buffer miles restored has increased each year, with 457 miles restored in 2022 and 640.5 in 2023, the highest number since 2016.

Jurisdictions of the Bay watershed work toward the collective goal to improve water quality both locally and downstream. Of the 457 miles of forest buffers restored in 2022, 340 miles were reported in Pennsylvania, 50 miles were reported in Virginia, 34 miles were reported in New York, 31 miles were reported in Maryland, two miles were reported in West Virginia and less than one mile was reported in Delaware. In 2023, 298 miles were reported in Virginia, 268 miles in Pennsylvania, 40 miles in Maryland, 21 miles in New York, 13 miles in West Virginia and less than one mile in Delaware.

Flexible buffer programs are highlighted in State Riparian Forest Buffer Action Strategies, which were developed following the 2022 Riparian Forest Buffer Leadership Workshop. The Workshop was convened by the Forestry Workgroup to identify pathways to accelerate progress towards meeting the partnership’s buffer goals, recognizing that forest buffers are a priority outcome that was lagging in progress.

The Watershed Agreement also has a target to conserve existing riparian forest buffers until at least 70% of riparian area throughout the watershed is forested. Despite recent increases in forest buffer restoration, there is still a net loss of buffers across the watershed. The Chesapeake Bay Program’s Land Use/Land Cover Data uses satellite imagery, collected every four years, to capture changes on the land like the planting or removal of forest buffers. When data was captured in 2013/14, 69.3% of the watershed’s riparian area was forested. That number fell to 68.85% in 2017/2018, a loss of 21,743 acres or by .47%

This loss of forested buffers highlights the importance of pairing planting and maintenance programs with conservation efforts that protect existing forest cover in the riparian area. Later this year, the updated Land Use/Land Cover data will be released showing changes up to 2021/2022.

The Chesapeake Bay Program also notes substantial gains in trees planted across cities, suburbs and other residential areas, known as “community trees.” Working toward the Tree Canopy Outcome, partners planted 2,577.4 acres of community trees in 2023, the highest reported since tracking began in 2014. However, the Land Use Land/Cover Data shows a net loss for community trees as well. While jurisdictions have planted 11,340 acres of community trees since 2014, the watershed lost over 25,000 acres between 2013/14 and 2017/18, outpacing the gains from community tree plantings.


Loss of forest buffers across the Bay watershed offsets the gains that have been made by restoring new buffers. The Chesapeake Bay Program’s Land Use/Land Cover data shows a net loss of forest in the riparian area for every jurisdiction except New York between 2013/14 and 2017/2018.


Riparian Land Area

Forest Cover Acres, 2013/2014

Forest Cover %, 2013/2014

Forest Cover Acres, 2017/2018

Forest Cover %, 2017/2018

Net Change in Acres

Net Change in %









District of Columbia
















New York
























West Virginia








Total Watershed









Forest buffer restoration is one of the most cost effective practices for reducing nutrient and sediment runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. The deep root systems of streamside trees and shrubs absorb nutrients that wash off the land, while stabilizing stream banks and reducing the amount of sand, silt and sediment that can wash into waterways. Strategically restoring forest buffers in higher parts of the watershed can also help protect communities, infrastructure and ecosystems from the impacts of flooding.

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 buffers for food, shelter and access to water at some point in their lives. Stream buffers also offer safe migration paths for wildlife, creating forest “corridors” that are critical to many species.

In summer, the leafy canopies of forest buffers shade rivers and streams, providing refuge for people and animals alike. Shade helps keep water temperatures cool and consistent, which is particularly important in the context of climate change. Without it, water temperatures would rise rapidly, fueling the growth of harmful algae blooms and stressing sensitive species. Brook trout, for instance, live only in cool, clear water, and depend on the shade that stream buffers provide. Cooler water can also hold more oxygen, which aquatic species need to survive.


“Pennsylvania has been hard at work increasing funding and technical assistance with new staff and partner investments in planting streamside forest buffers, and our numbers of acres of streamside forests continue to grow. Cooler waters, improving habitat, and decreasing flood risk in our creeks, streams, and rivers helps all who live and recreate in the Commonwealth and the Chesapeake Bay.”

  • Cindy Adams Dunn, Secretary, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

“Forest buffers are foundational for meeting many of the partnership’s goals for water quality, habitat, climate resilience and people. The big increase in planting numbers over the last few years is showing that state and federal investments in riparian forest buffer restoration are really paying off. Chesapeake Forestry Workgroup partners are committed to continuing the long-term efforts required to meet the partnership’s ambitious goals for riparian forest buffers, while also increasing focus on maintaining and conserving existing riparian forests.”

  • Katherine Brownson, U.S. Forest Service liaison to the Chesapeake Bay Program, coordinator of the Chesapeake Bay Program Forestry Workgroup

“Conservation district staff have been and continue to be best equipped to meet our landowners needs. Since riparian forest buffers are such a priority practice for the Upper Susquehanna Coalition, we’ve developed programs to meet local needs and build local capacity. Working as a partnership we’re able to leverage federal, state and local funding to sustain a comprehensive riparian forest buffer program.”

  • Lydia Brinkley, Buffer Coordinator, Upper Susquehanna Coalition