Riparian Forest Buffer Initiative/Stream ReLeaf

[A river running through a forested area]Background
In October 1994, the Chesapeake Executive Council adopted directive 94-1 which called upon the Chesapeake Bay Program to develop a policy which would enhance riparian stewardship and efforts to conserve and to restore riparian forest buffers. A thirty-one member panel was convened. That panel presented a series of policy recommendations to the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council for adoption on October 10, l996.

The following goals were adopted that day: 1) to assure, to the extent feasible, that all streams and shorelines will be protected by a forested or other riparian buffer; 2) to conserve existing forests along all streams and shorelines; and 3) to increase the use of all riparian buffers and restore riparian forests on 2,010 miles of stream and shoreline in the watershed by 2010, targeting efforts where they will be of greatest value to water quality and living resources.

The Council also adopted the following policy recommendations (submitted by the Riparian Forest Buffer Panel):

  • Establish mechanisms to streamline, enhance, and coordinate existing programs related to buffers and riparian system conservation.
  • Build partnerships with the private sector to help support the promotion and implementation of riparian forest buffer (RFB) retention and restoration activities.
  • Develop and promote an adequate array of incentives for landowners and developers to encourage voluntary riparian buffer retention and restoration.
  • Increase the level of scientific and technical knowledge of the function and management of riparian forest and other buffers, as well as their economic, social, ecological, and water quality values.
  • Encourage Bay signatories to implement education and outreach programs about the benefits of RFB and other stream protection measures.
The Council adopted the goal of establishing 2,010 miles of stream and shoreline buffers in the watershed by the year 2010. The Council also directed each state and the federal government to establish a buffer implementation plan by June 30, l998. Maryland pledged to establish 600 miles of riparian forest buffers by the year 2010. Maryland's goal was doubled in 2001 to 1,200 miles after achieving the initial 600-mile commitment ahead of schedule.




The Maryland Stream Releaf Coordinating Committee was formed to implement Maryland's commitment to the Chesapeake Bay Riparian Forest Buffer Initiative. Issues addressed include: tracking and reporting of buffer restoration and conservation; technical and financial resources; outreach and networking efforts; Stream Releaf recognition awards; targeting and goal setting. Agencies and organizations with an interest in supporting and advising on these issues are welcome to join. Call the Stream Releaf Coordinator 410.260.8531 for more information.

  • Department of Natural Resources
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Environment
  • Department of State Planning
  • State Highway Administration
  • Maryland State Department of Education
  • USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • USDA Farm Service Agency
  • Maryland Farm Bureau
  • Maryland Forests Association
  • Maryland Association of Forest Industries
  • Forest Conservancy District Boards
  • Eastern Shore Land Conservancy
  • University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service
  • Charles County Planning Department
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Tributary Strategy Teams
  • Alliance for Chesapeake Bay
  • Chesapeake Bay Foundation
  • U.S. Forest Service
  • The Nature Conservancy

The Riparian Forest Buffer Initiative is called STREAM RELEAF, thanks to permission from American Forests to use the ReLeaf name and logo

Videos about Stream ReLeaf and riparian forest buffers are available. An 8-minute video has been aired on Maryland Outdoors on MPT.

Buffer Survival: Most buffers are surviving with greater than 200 trees per acre. A two year study of Buffer Survival and Success in Maryland was funded by the US Forest Service.

A ​model curriculum on Stream ReLeaf​ is available for teachers of middle school students for performance-based assessment. Students search for information on the Internet, contact DNR foresters, and plan buffer plantings. The Student Booklet is available here.

What sort of buffer counts towards the goal? Chesapeake Bay Program guidance for multi-state effort:

Width for Restoring: The width included for tracking purposes to meet the 2010 goal will be 35 feet or greater, measured from the top of the bank or level of bankfull discharge. Individual jurisdictions may choose to apply greater widths in specific situations or to meet predetermined needs. The NRCS Standard provides guidance on variable widths from 35-100 feet.

Buffer widths of 50-100 feet will be promoted as the appropriate width for optimizing a range of multiple objectives for water quality and fish habitat improvement. Increasing widths to encompass the geomorphic flood plain is likewise desirable in order to optimize flood reduction benefits. Widths of up to 300 feet may be recommended to ensure values related to some wildlife habitat and use as migration corridors. Buffer averaging, the practice of expanding and contracting buffer widths in order to account for stream channel meandering and efficiency of protection measures such as fences, is acceptable.

Width for Conserving: A width of 100 feet on each side is recommended for protection of existing riparian forests. Individual jurisdictions may choose to apply greater widths in specific situations or to meet predetermined needs.

Riparian Forest Buffer Composition: The RFB composition will include a diversity of native, noninvasive woody trees and shrubs (multiple species including hardwoods). Newly established buffers will be managed to allow the establishment of an organic duff layer and understory vegetation. The Zone 3 (outermost zone) filter strip may include warm season grasses. Natural regeneration may be an acceptable afforestation practice where seed source is adequate for native tree recruitment, and invasive trees and other plants can be controlled.

Enhancement Criteria: RFB restoration will include situations where existing buffers are enhanced to meet the goals as defined in the RFB standard definition in the RFB Panel Report. This is likely to include the following situations:

  1. expansion of buffer widths to established recommended or minimum width
  2. conversion of grass filter strips to forest
  3. change in management practices to favor development of native vegetation
  4. change from mowed or highly managed landscaped area to a diversity of native species including trees where buffer functions and characteristics can be maintained and enhanced without the use of fertilizers and pesticides.
Under many circumstances, riparian forest establishment will be a part of stream stabilization and channel restoration objectives. Biotechnical stream stabilization measures may be integrated with riparian forest planting.

Riparian Forest Buffer Management Options: The RFB can be managed for a variety of forest products as well as recreation, wildlife, and other passive uses where management activities do not require repeated fertilization, frequent ground disturbance, or other intensive management practices. Management should not compromise the integrity of the buffer for water quality and living resource benefits.

Stream Definition: Any perennial or intermittent stream or shoreline is eligible for voluntary participation in forest buffer restoration or conservation. Free-flowing perennial streams and 1st and 2nd order streams (small streams) are priority areas. Establishment of buffers on wetlands or ditches and other human-altered waterways may be included where establishment achieves benefits for water quality and living resources and is consistent with their long-term operation and maintenance requirements.

Related Information:
Riparian Forest Buffers
Trees For Maryland's Watersheds
Wherever You Live, You Live in a Watershed
Shore Erosion Control