Wednesday, September 15, 2021

A Very Basic Intro to Riparian Forest Buffers

An ephemeral creek in northeastern Missouri that could benefit from a riparian forest buffer. (via Adam Gonnerman CC BY 4.0)
Our creeks and streams could use more care. With that could also come some financial benefits as well. 

Growing up in the landlocked state of Missouri, all of my experience with bodies of water involved lakes, ponds, creeks, and (to a limited extent) rivers. Before my parents had air conditioning installed when I was a teenager it was customary for my mother, brothers, and I to go to the local public lake to swim almost every summer afternoon. It was the only way to really cool off. Year round I had access to a pond and a creek, though neither was for swimming. 

The creek I named 'Acorn Creek'  ran from farm to farm through pasture and woodlands before emptying into the Long Branch creek. It turns out that 'my' stream doesn't have an official name recorded anywhere. Acorn Creek begins just before a piece of property that my late father purchased in the mid-1990s. The people before him had used the creek as a dump, with plastic, glass, and even large appliances lingering up and down the stream. 

It wasn't just dumping that troubled that creek. The agricultural use around it led to good soil being washed away in it, along with fertilizer and pesticides. Still, it passed through enough woodland areas along the way to still be able to support life. It's woody perennials along with grasses and forbs that made the difference. Warm season grasses put in deep roots, holding the soil in place and filtering the water that passes through it. The same goes for trees. It's not perfect, but it leads to the stream running clear most of the way to Long Branch. 

Now, imagine making that happen intentionally. Setting aside creeks and a strip of land on either side for a planned intervention. If the sides are too steep they can be reinforced with large stones. Otherwise in layers radiating out from either side of a creek or stream there can be natural growth, trees, shrubs, forbs, and warm season grasses. No cold season grasses because they don't tend to put down as deep and reliable roots. A fence could keep out any livestock, with water being provided to them by other means. In reality, I've never really seen farmers where I'm from relying on direct access to streams to water their livestock. Usually there's a well system in place with waterers installed around the pasture. 

This mixture of woody perennials with grasses and forbs is referred to as a riparian forest buffer. They can be very beneficial for the environment, but a few objections could be raised by landowners. I'm not going to try to list them all, but here are a couple that seem particularly important to me.

First, buffers like this take land out of agricultural production. That's true enough, since crops like corn and soybeans can't be included in the buffer zone. On the other hand, the buffer itself can be productive. Nut trees can be planted, for example, providing a crop in addition to whatever else is raised on the property. Having a riparian buffer doesn't have to mean that the land is out of use. Rather, it means that the land is being put to different use.

Second, wooded land can attract wildlife, which can be pests for nearby crops. That's also true, although many farms have wooded land without farmers having particular concerns about wildlife. In fact, the wildlife can provide yet another source of income. The owner and family can certainly hunt there in the proper seasons, and the option exists to allow access to others for hunting for a fee. 

There's only so much that a riparian buffer can do. It needs to be maintained over time, though I tend to think that's not a huge demand on time. Further, it only exists where landowners put it in place. Neighboring farms likely won't have a system like this, meaning that the extent of ecological benefits will be limited to land where the buffer exists, except that of course on that land it's helping reduce further damage to the creek structure and water quality.