By Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Coordinator

Several weeks ago, the Climate Column introduced filter strips, also known as buffer strips, which are areas of vegetation planted between cropland and surface water to obstruct the passage of sediment and pollutants into environmentally sensitive areas. One subcategory of filter strips are riparian forest buffers, described by the National Agroforestry Center (NAC) as areas adjacent to waterbodies that contain “a combination of trees, shrubs, and/or other perennial plants.” Like filter strips, riparian forest buffers are managed “differently from the surrounding landscape, primarily to provide conservation benefits.”

Riparian forest buffers and filter strips are generally implemented with a similar environmental goal: filtering pollutants –  including pesticides, waste, and fertilizer – from agricultural runoff, preventing their entry into nearby waterbodies. In addition to improving water quality, both conservation practices offer a number of secondary environmental benefits. For instance, the additional vegetative cover and diverse root system can stabilize otherwise highly erodible soils.

Furthermore, all varieties of filter strips, including forest riparian buffers, can support biodiversity by providing habitat for existing wildlife populations and helping protect pollinator populations.

Because forest riparian buffers include trees, which other filter strips often do not, they also grant some unique advantages. Forest buffers provide shade, which can foster both terrestrial and aquatic species that thrive in cooler temperatures. Additionally, perennial vegetation like trees are particularly effective for long-term atmospheric carbon sequestration, making forest riparian buffers a potential tool for farmers to decrease the greenhouse gas footprint of their operation.

Forest riparian buffers are not just an environmental boon, but an economic one as well. Farmers can diversify income streams by choosing buffer species that produce fruits, nuts, or decorative florals. Moreover, buffers can protect pre-existing cropland from flood damage by slowing the flow of water, thus acting as insurance for the earning on those crops.

Like all conservation practices, the success of forest riparian buffers depends on planning. Careful consideration of appropriate species, complementary conservation practices and width of the buffer strips will be contingent on individual circumstances, soil quality, topography, crop types, infrastructure, and local markets.

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