Better policies will grow better stream-side buffers

By Robert N. Whitescarver

Well-functioning forest buffers along streams are perhaps the most effective and least costly best management practice we have to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

The largest riparian forest program in U.S. history is the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). It’s the agency’s flagship program, but since the last Farm Bill expired in 2012, the sign-up for CREP has been spotty.

President Obama signed the new Farm Bill on Feb 7, but sign-up for CREP will not begin until the rulemaking and appropriations processes are completed. So, the biggest and best riparian forest buffer program in the United States has been in and out of “dry dock” for two years.

CREP began almost 20 years ago and all six Bay states have their own CREP program combining federal, state and private resources. Many CREP contracts are due to expire on Sept. 31, and certainly, many producers will be tempted to convert poorly functioning buffers back to cropland or pasture.

To avert this shipwreck and entice people to renew their contracts, we need a new and better policy. What we need is an incentive package to uplift expiring CREP contracts to ensure the buffers are well-functioning forests. I also believe we need to revisit the incentive package for CREP as a whole.

Maryland was the first state in the Bay watershed to offer CREP in 1997. Delaware followed in 1999; Pennsylvania in 2000 and Virginia in 2001. Thousands of acres of pasture and cropland have been enrolled and planted to trees.

There were successes and failures. We have learned a lot since 1997 and CREP procedures have evolved to improve performance. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not put enough emphasis on managing the buffer once it was planted. We planted it and walked away trusting nature to take care of things.

In my opinion, more than half of the CREP areas, at least in Virginia, are not functioning as riparian forest buffers because they don’t have enough trees. A forest buffer is not only more effective than a grass buffer at removing nutrients, sediment and pathogens — it provides the stream with inputs, like leaves, so that the aquatic ecosystem can detoxify polluted runoff even more.

Many riparian forest buffers were planted, but 10 to 15 years later there is no forest. The stream is not receiving the environmental services we paid for, nor is the Chesapeake Bay. In addition, the “model” gives us credit for installing a forest buffer when in fact one does not exist.

There are many reasons for tree seedling failure, but the main ones are lack of tree shelter maintenance, invasive weeds such as tall fescue and improper planting.

The biggest seller of riparian buffers is what people see on the land. When the neighbors ride by a CREP area full of invasive weeds and empty tree shelters, it doesn’t compel them to enroll in the program. We need to fix this.

Under the old Farm Bill, mid-contract management couldn’t start until year five of a 10-year CREP contract. The cost-share rate for management practices was 50 percent. To greatly improve success, management needs to start the second year of the contract and the cost-share rate needs to be higher. The first three years of a new forest are the most critical for success, so why wait until the contract is half over?

I’d like to see a different kind of incentive, one that lets the participants figure out the details. For example, create a huge incentive payment for achieving 70 percent tree canopy closure in 10 years.

For CREP as a whole, the incentive package needs some tweaking. The rental rates, cost-shares, practice incentive payments and signing bonus are spot on. But the USDA needs to drop the $5 per acre maintenance payment. Most producers laugh at this and it sends the wrong message. Maintenance or management funding should be much higher.

We have never addressed the farmer’s biggest objection to putting in fences to exclude livestock from the buffer. “Who’s going to pay to put the fence back up when a flood takes it out?” We have talked about it a lot but no one has come up with a good answer yet.

Here’s a suggestion: Offer a flood incentive payment equal to 100 percent of the average cost of the fence subject to flooding. In other words, give the farmer the replacement cost up front to rebuild the fence. It’s simple and it removes the largest objection to streamside fencing.

I hope the rulemaking process begins soon for the CREP program. The USDA’s flagship riparian buffer program needs to set sail at full steam ahead.

“Trees are the answer.”

Robert Whitescarver, president of Whitescarver Natural Resources Management LLC, is a retired NRCS district conservationist and CREP technical coordinator for Virginia. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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