Home / Blogs / Riparian Forest Buffers: A Legacy of the Alliance
May 12, 2021
When Al Todd arrived at the Chesapeake Bay Program(CBP) in 1992, the CBP partnership was still young. Bill Matuszeski had just arrived as EPA Director, and the USDA Forest Service assigned Todd as the federal representative on forest-related issues and programs. He was also charged with building a new interagency, “Forestry Work Group.” One of the first people to contact Todd that first year was Verna Harrison, then Secretary of DNR for the State of Maryland. Ms. Harrison’s request was simple, “we need your help on riparian forest buffers.” Maryland had recently launched a new “Greenshores” program to plant buffers and just passed the landmark Forest Conservation Act, and both were facing resistance.
Having worked for over a decade on forest management and stream restoration on National Forests in Idaho and California, Todd was not a stranger to focusing on riparian areas as habitat for fish and wildlife; but this was different. In the Chesapeake, this was a new approach to protect forests along streams that ran through farms and urban areas to improve water quality and replant them as buffers. Riparian forest buffers were considered the last line of defense against activities we undertake in managing the land.
Al Todd pictured in the center in the 1990s
Most people have some intrinsic appreciation for the “value” of streamside forests and are drawn to them for hiking, camping, or just for peaceful relaxation. Anyone that has observed these environments might recognize their complexity and dynamic nature, the abundance of wildlife, the layering and diversity of vegetation, the contrast of energy in a flood or a tranquil summer flow, and the rocks, roots, and fallen logs that form a mosaic of form and structure. However, the critical nature of riparian areas in determining the health of Chesapeake streams and landscapes had been largely overlooked in the past.
Although buffers are well accepted today, then, the push to use riparian forest buffers as mini-treatment systems ran into considerable resistance from both agriculture and urban developers. Setting aside farmland to plant buffers of trees and restricting development along streams were both seen as threats. Each interest group was convinced that the science did not bear the water quality benefit that was claimed. Critics of the concept of buffers were plentiful.
The Chesapeake Bay Program is deeply rooted in science-based solutions, so the first step was to gather the latest scientific findings on buffers. Clearly, the existing science was complicated, and the studies were not always easy to compare, creating confusion and doubt about the success of using buffers for water quality. So, in 1993, Todd organized a group of the leading federal, state, and university scientists to come together and hash out a set of consensus findings on which the Chesapeake could build its riparian buffer effort. For a year, the hydrology, chemistry, and ecology of riparian areas were debated and discussed. The unique publication that resulted served as a foundation for buffers as part of the emerging tributary strategies for water quality.
About this time, Todd met Dr. Bern Sweeney of the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, PA. Dr. Sweeney’s research found that streamside trees were also an essential foundation of freshwater ecosystems and perhaps the single most important factor in restoring fisheries and healthy streams. With a better understanding of the value of buffers, managers began to accept them as a potential new solution to persistent pollution problems. Riparian forest buffers were getting noticed.
This is where the Alliance comes in.
While there were growing interest and good science to back up this best management practice, the actual success in efforts to set aside and plant new riparian buffers was not very successful. Less than 10 miles of buffer were being planted in the entire watershed each year. Resistance from farming interests in converting pasture or croplands to forest was substantial, and the idea of new restrictions on development along waterfronts were a flash point. The Forestry Work Group proposed that the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) set out new goals for riparian forest buffer restoration that could serve as a catalyst for progress.
Todd and the Forest Service turned to the Alliance for help. Working together with the Forestry Work Group, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay organized a 3 day conference (appropriately at Turf Valley Inn in Howard County MD). The conference began by laying out the science on the value of streamside forests to the health of freshwater streams and Bay shorelines and how these buffers could reduce pollution from adjacent land use. Speakers explored the history of land use and how riparian areas had been treated in the past. Workshops included discussions and examples of using buffers to protect streams when harvesting trees, growing crops, grazing animals, and building new developments. Each session was designed to produce a set of recommendations about how to move forward. Fran Flanigan, Director of the Alliance, and Al Todd worked together to moderate the discussions and compile the results.
The 1994 Riparian Forest Buffer Conference created the momentum needed by Todd and the Forestry Work Group to propose that the States establish a new goal for riparian forest buffer restoration. At its annual meeting later that year, the Governors signed a Directive that called on the CBP to reach out to stakeholders and make recommendations to the Executive Council (EC) by 1996. It was time to tap the Alliance again.
Fran Flanigan & Al Todd
The Alliance and Fran Flanigan were well known for bringing people together to find solutions and build consensus on policies and programs. Todd and the Forest Service contracted with the Alliance to implement the 1994 EC Directive. To guide the process, a Riparian Forest Buffer Panel was established with representatives of all the States, federal agencies, interests from agriculture, builders, foresters, biologists, and environmental interests. Expanding on the conference, this panel held listening and planning meetings across the Chesapeake watershed. Discussions were sometimes intense and concerns were many. Many saw the proposed goal as a land grab and potential threat to farmers and homebuilders. The science was debated again. While the Panel debated, Todd teamed up with Sweeney to take the positive message of riparian forest buffers to interest groups across the watershed. In the initial 12 month period following the adoption of the Directive, Todd and Sweeney made over 150 presentations to Farm Bureaus, Conservation Districts, local planning commissions, homebuilders groups, and others. The ideas needed to be sold to skeptical stakeholders. (It was during this time I got the nickname “Bufferman”)
The Alliance completed the Panel process in 1996 and presented a new comprehensive set of goals to the EC for approval. Although some saw the goal of planting 2010 miles of new riparian forest buffers by 2010 as a minimal commitment, many in the States saw the goal as a serious challenge. New incentives would be needed, new programs, new training for field staff. The Alliance then continued its partnership with Todd and the Forest Service, helping to develop a training program on riparian forest buffer design, planting, and maintenance. Hundreds were trained in MD, PA, and VA in partnership with Cooperative Extension. The Alliance planted demonstration buffers in each of the States (one of the first of these in PA was with Trout Unlimited on Lititz Run at the Conservancy)
The new goals led to the establishment of federal and state incentive programs to encourage landowners to plant buffers. By 2001, the 2010 goal had been reached and exceeded and the CBP called for an expansion of the riparian buffer goals. Once again, the Alliance was part of the collaboration that saw the adoption in 2003 of a 10,000-mile riparian forest buffer goal, long-term goals for watershed protection, and the first recognition that urban forests were key to reducing stormwater runoff and pollution. Local governments began to develop new stream corridor ordinances. The 2003 Expanded Riparian Forest Buffer goals included landmark commitments to set urban forest canopy goals in Chesapeake Bay communities and quantify the benefits of urban trees in Bay State pollution reduction strategies. Years later, the Alliance hosted an Urban Forest Canopy Conference for Bay communities to promote the achievement of these goals.
The work continued.
In 2003 Todd drafted the BMP Nutrient Efficiencies for Riparian Forest Buffers that allowed the effectiveness of buffers to be accounted for in the Bay Model and the TMDL and developed the first GIS Inventory of riparian buffers at the watershed scale to help in targeting riparian buffers. Under the leadership of then, Sen Paul Sarbanes, Al Todd, and other Forestry Work Group members (which included the Alliance) were enlisted to work with USDA to develop a buffer incentive program that could support farm landowners in the achievement of the expanded Bay goals. In the summer of 2004, the first Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) in the nation was launched in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
The Alliance has continued to work at the local and state level to educate landowners, homeowners, watershed groups, government planners, and regulators about riparian forest buffers, and to bring resources and technical assistance to restoration in partnership with many different groups. The Alliance has developed programs such as the Healthy Streams Farm Stewardship Program to assist farmers in fencing cows out of creeks and planting new forest buffers. In 2014-16, the Alliance also led an effort with support from USDA to work with stakeholders in all 6 Bay watershed States to evaluate needs to reform, improve, and streamline the CREP program to enhance its effectiveness.
Al Todd was the Chesapeake Bay Liaison and Team Leader for the USDA Forest Service from 1992 to 2008 and served as the Executive Director of the Alliance from 2011-2017.