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Forest Buffers Along Waterways

Forest buffers are the trees, shrubs, and grasses planted along streams that play an important role in maintaining the health of our waterways.

Technically known as riparian forest buffers, they serve as a transition from land to water. Riparian forests act as filters for the sediments and pollutants from farm fields, residential lawns and roadways to help keep them from reaching the water.

Pennsylvania’s Buffer Initiative

Pennsylvania has more than 86,000 miles of rivers and streams. Maintaining and restoring buffers is a key strategy for improving water quality and aquatic habitat in Pennsylvania. 

The commonwealth has a goal of planting 95,000 acres of riparian forest buffers statewide by 2025 to improve waterways in Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay. An advisory committee (PDF) has been established to assist with advice and information.

How to Get Involved

Landowners and farmers with waterways on their properties can improve water quality and wildlife habitat by planting stream buffers. It’s best to get advice from someone who is familiar with riparian maintenance and restoration.

There are a number of resources available to assist, including DCNR service foresters and county conservation districts. Each county has an assigned service forester.They help guide landowners and residents to practice sustainable forestry, including planting stream buffers.

To assist the commonwealth in meeting it stream buffer goal it’s important than landowners take credit for their hard work and stewardship by reporting their buffer plantings to the Department of Environmental Protection Stream Releaf database.

If you don’t own land near streams, volunteering is another way to pitch in. There are a number of community and conservation organizations working to establish and maintain buffers.

Grants for Riparian Forest Buffers

There are a number of incentives for conservation practices that include stream buffers that are outlined by the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts in a Landowner’s Guide to Conservation Buffer Incentive Programs in Pennsylvania (PDF).

DCNR’s Riparian Forest Buffer Grant Program provides financial assistance to identify locations in need of riparian forested buffers and to design, establish, monitor, and maintain those buffers.

Buffer Design

Generally, the wider and more diversely planted the buffer, the more likely it will be to provide positive benefits.

A forest buffer is often described in three zones that have different functions.

Where ecologically correct, riparian buffers can not only be environmental strongholds but also to be harvestable and productive. There is the potential to plant products such as nuts, berries, woody florals, forbs, and woody biomass in the appropriate buffer zones. DCNR has a concept for multi-functional riparian forest buffers (PDF) to provide greater flexibility in landowner eligibility; buffer design; width; plant species; and to include the option of planting some income-producing crops in the riparian zone.

In buffers, it’s a good idea to consider native plants, avoid invasive species, and include a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees.