Local Stream Buffers Could Prevent Ida-Like Damage

By Emily Scott, Public News Service
for The Posts

HARRISBURG PA – Could a forest, or several of them, have reduced the flooding, devastation, and human suffering that Tropical Storm Ida wrought last week across western Montgomery County and elsewhere in Pennsylvania? Recommendations in the state’s 681-page Forest Action Plan suggest trees, shrubs, and other plantings should be considered part of the solution.

The report indicates a form of forests called riparian buffers could make Pennsylvania more prepared to handle extreme weather events, like severe storms. Buffers are strips or swaths of vegetation forming barriers that line the banks of, or grow near, runs, creeks, streams, rivers, and other waterways. They play a key role in decreasing stormwater run-off that can contaminate water and cause flooding.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service reports riparian buffer root systems can control soil erosion. They absorb and filter animal wastes, sediments, nutrients, and pesticides from crops and ranges. Buffers help shade, protect, and provide food for fish, aquatic organisms, and some wildlife.

Riparian buffers can even turn a profit, according to the Association of Temperate Agroforestry. If grown in specific ways and sufficient quantity, companies can periodically harvest buffers’ timber or non-timber products while still maintaining their buffering capacity.

Not surprisingly, the importance of buffers attracts plenty of local interest. Both the Green Valleys Watershed Association south of Pottstown, and the Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy in Schwenksville, are periodically involved in riparian buffer projects.

“Planting trees reduces those impacts that flooding can have in a resource or a community,” Ellen Shultzabarger, director of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry, said. They lessen “environmental runoff that normally would be there when there aren’t trees and vegetation. So they provide such a great way of providing resilience in those large weather events.”

Pennsylvania forests cover nearly 60 percent of the state. The 2008 Farm Bill passed by Congress gave states the job of assessing their forest resources and developing strategies to address long-term needs within the forest system. The goal: promoting sustainability. Just how Pennsylvania intends to do that is contained within those 681 pages, which are updated every 10 years.

Forest plan shows cities benefit from trees too

The state forest plan also addresses the importance of trees in cities, areas often lacking shade. Sarah Corcoran, conservation program manager at the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club with headquarters in Harrisburg, said trees in urban areas can play an important role in dealing with hotter days and capturing pollutants in the air.

“The temperature in a city is generally a few degrees warmer than outside of the city because there aren’t as many green spaces to absorb the heat,” Corcoran explained. “The more green spaces you have, the more trees that you have, the cooler the city overall is going to be.”

More than of 75 percent Pennsylvania’s population lives in urban areas. The Forest Service also recommends planting trees in urban watersheds to reduce soil erosion and sediment in streams, and improve water quality.