Why forest buffers?

Riparian Forests Buffers: The link between land and water



Why is Restoring Streamside Forest Buffers so Critical to Healthy Streams and a Healthy Chesapeake Bay?

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What are riparian forest buffers?

Riparian forest buffers are the trees, shrubs, and other vegetation that grows alongside streams, rivers, and other waterbodies. Riparian forest buffers are crucial for the health of the Chesapeake Bay.


What are the benefits of riparian forest buffers?

Cleaner Streams with Better Water Quality: Forest buffers protect streams and local drinking water supplies by helping to intercept and process excess nutrients, sediments, and pathogens from entering them. Scientific studies show that 100 feet of streamside forest will adequately protect the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of most streams1. However, narrower buffers are also beneficial for improving water quality.

Healthier Stream Ecosystems Better Able to Process Pollution: Forest buffers restore the natural in-stream conditions of temperature, oxygen, and food (algae, leaf litter) and stabilize and widen stream channels. The widening of channels creates more habitat and a better-functioning, healthier ecosystem per unit length of streambed. Studies have shown that streams bordered by forest are up to 2-8 times more effective than those with grass borders in processing important substances, like excess nitrogen2.

Better Habitat for Aquatic Life: “Trout Grow on Trees™” because forest buffers help increase the diversity and abundance of fish food – i.e, aquatic macroinvertebrates or “macros” – both directly by shedding leaves into streams for macros to feed upon, and indirectly by providing optimum light and temperature conditions for growing the preferred algae of macros. Streamside forests also create cooler, clearer, wider, more stable streams favored by native species of fish like brook trout while providing important habitat for birds, like wood ducks.

Enhanced Property Values, Benefits to Farms, Property Protection and Reduction of Flooding: Forest buffers can provide important economic benefits for farms, such as improved herd health and valuable assistance for alternate water, fencing and crossing. Forest buffers can enhance property values, prevent erosion and property loss from sloughing banks, regulate base flow of water to streams, and provide woody debris and wider stream channels for reducing downstream flooding. One tree can reduce stormwater runoff by 13,000 gallons a year3.

Improved Recreation and Human Health Benefits: Forest buffers enhance recreational opportunities, including fishing, bird watching, hunting, hiking, and exploration with children and grandchildren. Numerous studies show significant human health benefits from recreating in forests or looking at trees4, including increased immune system function, lower blood pressure, lower stress, improved mood, increased ability to focus, accelerated recovery from surgery or illness, increased energy level, and improved sleep.


Current Status of Riparian Forest Buffer Restoration in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Riparian forest buffers have been an integral part of restoring the Chesapeake Bay since 1994. The Chesapeake Bay Program and its partners have promoted this practice through education, outreach and technical assistance. This effort resulted in over 4,000 miles of riparian forest buffers restored from 2002 – 2007, but since then the rate of restoration has declined despite forest buffers being one of the most cost-effective practices for improving water quality.

Source: Chesapeake Bay Program. Retrieved from http://www.chesapeakebay.net/indicators/indicator/planting_forest_buffers.

  • 1 Sweeney, B. W., & Newbold, J. D. (2014). Streamside forest buffer width needed to protect stream water quality, habitat, and organisms: a literature review. JAWRA Journal of the American Water Resources Association,50(3), 560-584.
  • 2 Sweeney, B. W., Bott, T. L., Jackson, J. K., Kaplan, L. A., Newbold, J. D., Standley, L. J., … & Horwitz, R. J. (2004). Riparian deforestation, stream narrowing, and loss of stream ecosystem services. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(39), 14132-14137
  • 3 Plumb, Mike. (2008). Sustainable Raindrops: Cleaning New York Harbor by Greening the Urban Landscape. Retrieved from Riverkeeper website: http://www.riverkeeper.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/Sustainable-Raindrops-Report-1-8-08.pdf
  • 4 New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health. Retrieved from http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html#Reference.