Recent Progress: Increase
Forest buffer planting has steadily increased over the last two years with 230.5 forest buffer miles restored in 2021, more miles of new buffers than any year since 2016. Despite this improvement, new plantings have achieved only 25.6% attainment of the annual goal. The development and expansion of flexible independent buffer programs, which have become increasingly popular with landowners, have contributed to the positive trend these past two years. The Forestry Workgroup has also been effective in generating leadership attention through the 2022 Leadership Workshop and the subsequent development of state Forest Buffer Action Strategies.
Outlook: Off Course
The Forest Buffers Outcome is off course. The pace and scale of forest buffer implementation is inadequate to meet the ambitious goals set in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement or in the state WIPs. The Chesapeake Bay Program has not met its goal for riparian forest buffers since 2002, often achieving less than 10% of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement goal. To fill the gap between 2021 progress and 2025 WIP III goals, over 3,000 miles of forest buffers would need to be added annually between 2022 and 2025 (assuming 100-foot buffer widths).
Of the 230.5 miles of forest buffers restored in 2021, 98 miles were reported in Pennsylvania, 20 miles were reported in Maryland, 10 miles were reported in West Virginia, 72 miles were reported in Virginia, 30 miles were reported in New York, and less than 1 mile was reported in Delaware. The 230.5-mile total is an increase from 2020, in which 169 miles of forest buffers were restored, and 2019, in which 83 miles were restored.
The increase in recent progress is likely due to the increased implementation of flexible buffer programs that complement the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). There is growing momentum to expand these flexible buffer programs. Although the details of these programs vary, some characteristics that have been particularly effective include funding buffers on a rolling basis (rather than an annual, competitive grant process), making funding available quickly, providing buffers to agricultural and non-agricultural landowners, providing maintenance, and limiting or eliminating out-of-pocket costs for landowners.
Despite recent increases in progress, the number of miles of forest buffers planted each year since 2010 averages just 25% of the yearly restoration target. Many of the Bay states’ 2019 Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) established even more ambitious goals for forest buffers. In total, the states put 190,557 acres of cumulative forest buffer implementation in their Phase III WIPs to achieve by 2025. To put this in context, as of 2021, states had reported a cumulative total of 38,173 acres of forest buffers. This reflects a gap of 152,383 acres or 12,572 miles, assuming an average 100-foot buffer width. Between 2021 and 2025, states would need to add 3,143 miles per year collectively to meet the targets in their Phase III WIPs.
Forest buffers are critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay: They stabilize stream banks, prevent nutrient pollution from entering waterways, provide food and habitat for wildlife, and keep streams cool during hot weather. Because of these and other benefits, forest buffers are considered one of the most cost-effective best management practices to benefit the Bay.
To achieve this outcome, Chesapeake Bay Program partners have committed to:
- Facilitating connections between federal, state and local leaders and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- Aligning forest buffer programs with related projects and funding sources (e.g., land conservation, stream restoration, stormwater programs and funding).
- Improving existing forest buffer programs (e.g., amending state Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program agreements, increasing and improving technical assistance, conducting outreach and education) to make them more appealing to landowners.
- Using science and technology (e.g., high-resolution satellite imagery, geographic prioritization tools) to improve the forest buffer practice.
Monitoring and assessing progress toward the outcome will occur through data related to the miles of forest buffers planted each year, as collected through annual progress reports. High-resolution satellite imagery will confirm these buffers are there and represent a net gain for that part of the watershed.
As part of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s partnership-wide implementation of adaptive management, progress toward this outcome was reviewed and discussed by the Management Board in December of 2022. It will be reviewed and discussed by the Management Board again in August of 2024.
Logic & Action Plan
Chesapeake Bay Program partners have committed to taking a series of specific actions that will support the management approaches listed above.
- Renewing and maintaining leadership at the state and Partnership level, especially to support implementing state Riparian Forest Buffer Action Strategies to boost enrollment in riparian forest buffer programs.
- Increasing the effectiveness of landowner education on riparian forest buffer establishment and maintenance.
- Building capacity and improving equity in staff, contractors, and outreach.
- Expanding awareness of reduced mowing, riparian forest buffer and tree planting programs among non-agricultural landowners (e.g., federal or public land managers, schools, golf courses).
- Developing and implementing flexible programs with innovative financing and comprehensive services (e.g., planning, planting, maintenance).
- Working on policies to maintain and increase riparian forest buffers on landscape.
- Increasing demand for riparian forest buffers on all lands by leveraging relevant, complementary programs.
- Improving training and support networks for technical assistance providers.
- Developing communication and outreach plans for riparian forest buffers, tree canopy, and land use change products.
- Using new data and tools to improve strategic planning, climate resilience, equitable and effective buffer delivery, and reporting.
- Convened the Chesapeake Riparian Forest Buffer 2022 Leadership Workshop and organized two pre-workshop webinars and a pre-workshop synthesis effort
- Developed high-level Action Strategies in each jurisdiction to help focus and coordinate riparian forest buffers efforts.
- Continued to convene riparian forest buffer task forces or coordinating bodies in states where goals are regularly not being met.
- Improved riparian forest buffers verification by working with states on reporting and extending the credit duration of forest buffers in the model to 15 years.
The Forestry Workgroup, which is part of the Water Quality Goal Implementation Team, leads the effort to achieve this outcome. It works in partnership with the Vital Habitats and Healthy Watersheds goal implementation teams.
Participating partners include:
- State of Delaware
- State of Maryland
- State of New York
- Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
- Commonwealth of Virginia
- State of West Virginia
- Chesapeake Bay Commission
- Farm Service Agency (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
- Natural Resources Conservation Service (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- U.S. Forest Service
- U.S. Geological Survey
- Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay
- Baltimore Greenspace
- Cacapon Institute
- Casey Trees
- Chesapeake Bay Foundation
- The Nature Conservancy
- Parks and People Foundation
- Pennsylvania Conservation Districts
- Potomac Conservancy
- Stroud Water Research Center
- Trout Unlimited