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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.

2023 Watershed Forestry Summit Materials

2023 Watershed Forestry Summit Announcement (PDF)

2023 Watershed Forestry Summit Agenda (PDF)

Keystone Tree Fund

The Keystone Tree Fund creates a voluntary $3.00 check-off box on Pennsylvania driver’s license and vehicle registration online applications to buy, plant, and maintain more trees across the Commonwealth.

The fund also can accept direct donations in the form of checks.

Checks should be made out to “DCNR c/o Keystone Tree Fund,” and mailed to:

Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry
ATTN: Rural and Community Forestry
400 Market St., 6th Floor
Harrisburg, PA 17105

These voluntary donations will support the existing TreeVitalize and Riparian Forest Buffer Grant programs through the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Trees are one of the most cost-effective tools for improving local water quality. Along streams, trees:

  • Filter and absorb polluted runoff
  • Sequester carbon
  • Improve soil health
  • Cleanse drinking water sources

They also cool the water and improve habitat for many species.

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.

The Pennsylvania Riparian Forest Buffer 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 (PDF) 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 its stream buffer goal, it’s important that 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).

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ 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 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 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.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has a concept for multi-functional riparian forest buffers (PDF) to provide greater flexibility in landowner eligibility, buffer design, width, and 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 planting native plants, avoid invasive species, and include a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees.