Planting Riparian Forest Buffers in the Chesapeake in the Time of COVID-19

Photo of a man planting a large tree.The Chesapeake Bay Program has long recognized the value of expanding riparian forest buffers to improve water quality in local waterways. This year, however, the planting season coincided with the spread of COVID-19. Fortunately, with proper planning and a little creativity, Chesapeake Bay Program partners have found innovative ways to plant trees while maintaining social distancing guidelines.

Planting riparian forest buffers on private lands is one of the most cost-effective ways to filter polluted runoff from agricultural and developed areas while providing a myriad of benefits — from cooling streams and sequestering carbon to providing habitat. These efforts are especially critical in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, an area that is crossed by more than 100,000 rivers, creeks and streams, spans six states and the District of Columbia, and is home to more than 18 million people. The Chesapeake Bay Program, whose partners include federal and state forestry agencies and many others, has established an ambitious goal of planting 900 miles of buffers per year.

Although forestry and tree-planting are designated as essential activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, state and non-profit partners have still faced many challenges in their effort to plant as many trees as possible during the critical spring planting months. With the size and diversity of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, these challenges have varied. In southerly states like Virginia, much of the planting took place before the pandemic triggered widespread closures. But in northern states like New York, the majority of riparian tree plantings are postponed until fall.

Come fall, these postponed plantings will require a different approach. For example, spring plantings are usually done with bare root tree stock, which should be planted while trees are dormant. For this reason, fall plantings often use small containerized trees, which may be in short supply in certain areas.  Some partners are “heeling in” bare root seedlings – placing them at an angle in a shaded trench – in hopes that they survive the hot summer until they can be planted in the fall.

For projects that do continue this spring, it is a challenge to find enough hands to complete the work. In some northern states, forestry agency staff are being repurposed to fill labor shortages in nurseries, where it is critical to pull bare root trees in the brief dormancy period. Another hurdle has been the cancellation or postponement of volunteer events, which usually play a big role in getting trees planted while building community support for forest buffers. In some cases, staff can complete these plantings without volunteers, but it will be difficult during the short planting window.

Yet even with these challenges, partners have found innovative ways to keep people safe while still accomplishing important goals. Contractors who work on private watershed lands have maintained social distancing by strategically staging materials or dispersing tree-planters over a larger number of sites rather than keeping them together on a single site. To continue with outreach, state agencies and NGOs are using online resources and webinars as alternatives to face-to-face meetings with landowners. Others have provided technical assistance on topics like tree species selection over the phone. To prioritize flexibility, some programs have approved projects with only tentative planting plans that will be finalized once it is safe to conduct in-person site visits.

With their steadfast dedication, Chesapeake Bay Program partners are nimbly adapting to unprecedented challenges and ensuring that we continue to expand riparian forest buffers in the watershed.