Funding a Forest Buffer Program

Riparian forest buffers are among the best practices for improving stream health and water quality per dollar invested. However, from an agricultural producer perspective, forest buffers can be cost-prohibitive. Direct costs of forests buffers include site preparation, trees, planting tools such as stakes and tree tubes, and long-term maintenance. For ranchers, the expenses increase with the additional costs of exclusionary fencing, water crossings, and alternative water sources. Agricultural producers may also assume a loss in income from taking land out of agricultural production. Fortunately, there are voluntary conservation programs available to agricultural producers to partially or completely offset these costs. In addition, grants are available to practitioners to support innovative programs that offset the remaining costs of forest buffers to the landowner or incentivize adoption of riparian forest buffers.


What funding resources are available?


USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is offered through USDA and managed by FSA, and is a partnership between these agencies and states. It provides landowners with financial incentives and technical support to remove land from agricultural production and implement conservation practices that help protect water and soil. Contracts are voluntary and generally last between 10 and 15 years. Landowners are paid a generous annual rental rate for each year they are in the contract. CREP also provides cost share assistance that often covers the full cost of implementing conservation practices.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)  is offered through the USDA and is managed by the NRCS. It is a voluntary program that helps landowners plan and implement conservation practices by providing financial and technical assistance. It offers flexible terms for contracts, with a maximum agreement length of ten years. Landowners receive financial assistance based on the average implementation cost of the practice. There is a wide diversity of conservation practices in this program which address natural resource concerns like water and air quality, soil erosion, nutrient management, and wildlife habitat.



NRCS’ Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) provides financial and technical assistance to assist landowners in protecting and restoring wetlands. Eligible lands may be current or former wetlands, where it is possible for degraded hydrologic functions to be restored and made suitable for wildlife habitat. There are three enrollment options for this program- a permanent easement, a 30 year easement or a restoration cost-share agreement that lasts for 10 years. In each case, the USDA helps to pay easement and restoration costs; the amount varies based on the length of the agreement.



NRCS’ Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP) helps landowners restore, enhance, and protect forestland on their property through financial assistance and easements. This program promotes the recovery of endangered and threatened species, improving plant and animal diversity, and enhancing carbon sequestration. There are three enrollment options for this program- a permanent easement, a 30 year easement or a restoration cost share agreement that lasts for 10 years.



NRCS’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) promotes buffers as a part of a suite of enhancements designed to maintain or exceed the quality criteria, or stewardship level, for the resource concern.  Most of the agriculture producers that are approved to participate in CSP have already been implementing conservation practices on their land. CSP steps in and offers enhancements  for those practices. In the case of a riparian buffer, CSP could help widen the buffer or improve its efficiency.


New York CSP

Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost Share (MACS) Program provides up to 37.5% cost share of the eligible costs of planting a riparian forest buffer. This program is to be combined with enrollment in CREP. This program is managed by the Maryland Department of Agriculture.





MACS website

Backyard Buffers provides a free bag of 20 to 30 native tree and shrub bare-root seedlings to landowners who have streams or other waterways on or adjacent to their property. This program is for smaller landowners who are not eligible for agricultural cost share programs, and is not available in all counties. Program managed by Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Forest Service and Potomac Conservancy.

TreeVitalize is a program to restore tree cover in Pennsylvania communities. This program is for projects not eligible for agricultural cost-share programs. Managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Riparian Forest Buffer Program provides grants to organizations working with landowners and municipalities to establish riparian forest buffers. Eligible applicants include local governments and non-profits or educational organizations working in Pennsylvania. Eligible grant activities include landowner outreach, buffer design, site preparation and buffer installation, plant materials, tree shelters, and short-term maintenance.

The Riparian Buffer Tax Credit is available to landowners for preserving riparian forest buffers along waterways during a timber harvest operation. Landowners may apply for a tax credit equal to 25% of the value of the timber (or up to $17,500) within a riparian forest buffer.A buffer must be between 35 and 300 feet wide and must be intact for at least 15 years. There is a $150 application fee, and the landowner must also have a Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) approved stewardship management plan.



Virginia Agricultural Cost Share (VACS) SL-6 Program is available to landowners for stream exclusion and alternative watering systems. The stream exclusion fence must be setback a minimum of 35 feet. Landowners may receive up to 75% cost share, as well as a tax credit of 25% of eligible out of pocket expenses after cost share payment.



Trees for Clean Water Program provides technical and financial support for on-the-ground efforts related to riparian buffer tree planting, community and neighborhood tree planting, etc. Funding is available on a 50/50 match basis. This program is for projects not eligible for agricultural cost share programs. Program managed by Virginia Department of Forestry.

clearwaterWhen building your riparian forest buffer program, consider leveraging not just federal or state cost share programs, but private programs developed by non-profit partners. Private programs take an innovative approach to getting riparian forest buffers on-the-ground, often filling a financial or technical assistance gap for landowners left by federal or state programs. If your organization manages a forest buffer incentive or cost share program that you would like included here, please contact us. See our success stories for examples of such programs.

Chesapeake Bay Trust (CBT) Restoration and Retrofits Grant program funds projects that lead to demonstration-based restoration, community engagement, and environmental education. This program is Maryland specific.


National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund awards grants under two categories: Small Watershed Grants (SWGs) and Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants (INSRs). SWGs are projects that promote community based efforts to protect and restore natural resources of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers and streams. INSRs are awarded to projects that dramatically accelerate nutrient and sediment reductions through innovative, sustainable, and cost effective methods, approaches, and technology. The Fund is a partnership between NFWF and the US Environmental Protection Agency.



National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) Technical Capacity Grants Program is offered in partnership with the US Environmental Protection Agency to provide technical services on behalf of local governments, nonprofit organizations, and conservation districts for projects that enhance local capacity to restores habitats and water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers and streams.



Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts’ CREP Mini-grant Program for Conservation Districts funds conservation districts to implement education and outreach activities to extend the work of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.



Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Growing Greener Watershed Protection Grants fund watershed conservation projects.



USDA Forest Service Northeastern Landscape Scale Restoration (LSR) Grant Program supports projects that address priorities in each State’s Forest Action Plan. Eligible projects include landscape restoration practices that enhance forest sustainability, such as invasive species management, and integrate efforts to improve management of non-industrial private forest lands. All project proposals are submitted directly by the state forester. Only five proposals may be submitted per state.



USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grant Program supports the development of innovative approaches and technologies for accelerating conservation on agricultural lands.



USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) promotes coordination between NRCS and its partners to deliver conservation assistance to producers and landowners. Financial assistance is provided to landowners in accordance to the rules of EQIP, CSP, ACEP, and HFRP.



RCPP Webpage

Why ecosystem service markets?

Ecosystem service markets can help fund the restoration and conservation of riparian forest buffers. Forests provide a full suite of goods and services that are vital to human health and livelihood, natural assets we call ecosystem services. Many of these goods and services are traditionally viewed as free benefits to society, or “public goods” – wildlife habitat and diversity, watershed services, carbon storage, and scenic landscapes, for example. Ecosystem service markets recognize riparian forest buffers as natural assets with economic and social value.

By implementing conservation actions, landowners can generate credits and sell them to organizations who voluntarily purchase the credits or entities like waste water treatment plants that need credits to maintain compliance with government-provided permits. A good first step in determining whether a property is eligible for market is to visit LandServer.


What are the existing ecosystem service markets in the Chesapeake Bay watershed?

Water Quality Trading: Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are currently operating water quality trading programs. Producers are eligible to generate nutrient credits after meeting established “baselines” for performance.

Stormwater Reduction Regulations: Under the recently adopted Chesapeake Bay TMDL, local governments are required to reduce stormwater runoff and associated pollutants as well as offset the potential pollutants associated with new growth and development. Developers and local governments face significant challenges meeting the new criteria and will need to rely on offset approaches to address potential impacts. Producers can generate these offsets through a variety of practices including tree planting and implementation of riparian forest buffers.

MS4s or Municipal Separate Storm Systems: Discharges from MS4s are regulated by the states under the Clean Water Act as point sources.  MS4 designated cities require a permit that requires certain actions and practices that may involve tree planting.

Maryland’s Forest Conservation Act: Maryland’s Forest Conservation Act is one of the oldest market-based conservation mechanisms in the Chesapeake region. In short, the Act requires developers to replace trees cut because of development through afforestation or reforestation. Forest banking is a conservation tool that allows a woodland owner to create and protect forest and then sell “mitigation credits” to developers seeking to comply with the Act.

Maryland’s Critical Area Protection Act: Established in 1984, the Critical Area Protection Act regulates land use within 1,000 feet of tidal waters and wetlands. The Act regulates forest cover like the Forest Conservation Act, but also mandates retention and mitigation for forest interior dwelling habitat, riparian forest buffers and stormwater. If developers are unable to meet the Act’s requirements on site, private mitigation banks can be used to provide offsets.


Chesapeake Bay Regional Water Quality Trading Program

Virginia Water Quality Trading Guidance

Ecosystem Markets for Virginia’s Forest Lands

Ecosystem Markets for Maryland’s Forest Lands

Ecosystem Markets for Pennsylvania’s Forest Lands