Saving the Future

Brook Trout“I’m convinced that something has to be done to keep cows out of the stream,” David Heverly told me. And so he had enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which is better known by its acronym CREP. A federal program authorized and funded under the current Farm Bill, it is administered by the Farm Service Agency in the United States Department of Agriculture with technical assistance from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

But the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and its many private conservation partners, as well as our own Game Commission, also contribute to this program, and keeping cows out of streams is one of their major goals. Instead of forested buffers along many of our streams, especially in the valleys, the banks are bare and broken down by watering cattle.

Yet there is a better way, as Heverly has discovered. At no cost to him, Heverly’s stream was fenced, a cattle crossing was constructed over it, and native trees and shrubs were planted on either side of it. By choosing CREP Conservation Practice 22 (CP22), which creates a riparian forest buffer, Heverly has protected 1600 feet of an unnamed tributary of the Bald Eagle Creek from erosion and pollution. All of this fencing and planting had been done in 2005, and already green ash trees were sticking out of his three-foot-tall, plastic grow tubes.

That was back in mid-May of last year when I joined a tour led by Frank Rohrer, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s stream buffer specialist for Centre County, and Daina Beckstrand, a wildlife habitat biologist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, although Beckstrand’s salary, travel and vehicle expenses are paid for by the Game Commission in an agreement with the NRCS, according to Michael Pruss, the PGC’s Private Lands Biologist. Rohrer’s employer, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is another CREP partner, along with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and a host of others, that helps guide landowners through the CREP enrollment process and phases of the project.

CREP first started in Pennsylvania back in 2000, when it was available only in 20 counties in the lower Susquehanna and Potomac River basins, where the excessive nutrients and sediment from agricultural runoff directly impact the Chesapeake Bay. Once CREP reached its goal of 9,000 acres of riparian buffers in those counties, they extended the program in 2003 into the 23 counties in the Upper Susquehanna whose watersheds also impact the Chesapeake Bay. A year later CREP moved into the 16 counties in western Pennsylvania in the Ohio River Basin.

Frank Rohrer likes to say that “Trout grow on trees.”

But the waters of Centre County, like the waters of my own Blair County, are part of the Susquehanna River Basin and thus impact the Chesapeake Bay as well as our local waterways. Whenever we drive from our home along back country roads to State College, we cringe at the sight of so many unbuffered banks and muddy streams filled with cattle. So I was pleased to meet a farmer like Heverly who cared about protecting a precious resource on his land, and, by doing so, was also improving his cattle’s health by keeping them clean and dry.

Rohrer showed me a copy of Heverly’s plan, and it was clear that although the initial work had been done by contractors, it was up to Heverly to make sure at least 70 percent of the trees and shrubs survived. And during the life of the contract–15 years–Heverly is not allowed to harvest any trees or shrubs.

His riparian buffer also has three zones. The one closest to the stream contains only trees, the second zone has a mixture of trees and shrubs, and the third zone is composed of grasses. All tree seedlings had to be protected from deer-browsing by tree tubes buried deeply enough to prevent rodent and heat damage and covered on top by bird nets to keep songbirds from flying down into the tubes and dying.

Altogether, 290 trees and shrubs grow on Heverly’s 2.3 buffered acres including winterberry holly, gray and silky dogwood, shagbark hickory, black cherry, green ash, pin, white, and swamp white oaks, sycamore, and flowering crabapples. While the choice of species is left up to the landowner, with help from specialists such as Rohrer and Beckstrand, they must be native, they must be good species for the site, and less than 20% can be evergreens. Hardwoods are preferred, especially along the stream, because they add more nutrients, in the form of fallen leaves and other detritus, to the stream, which in turn feed the aquatic invertebrates. Eventually, the food chain reaches the fish.

As Rohrer likes to say, “Trout grow on trees.”

streamside grow tubesSigning up for CP22 makes economical sense as well. David Wise, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says that “Forested buffer projects boost income in two ways. First are one-time incentive payments based on the cost of the project, and second are annual rental payments of $67-$200 an acre. In typical projects, these combine to produce profits of $2000 to $3000 an acre over the life of the project.” In other words, not only are landowners reimbursed for the initial cost of CP22, but they make a substantial profit for keeping the forested riparian buffer on their land throughout the life of the contract (10-15 years).

After the contract runs out, they are free to do whatever they like with the land, but the hope is that, like Heverly, landowners will be pleased with their growing forest and shaded stream, and it will remain a permanent part of their overall property. After all, the CREP program wants to improve marginal farmland on highly-erodible slopes and stream banks, which is summed up in Pennsylvania’s slogan, “Farm the best, CREP the rest!”

The rest of Heverly’s 16-acre property is a cattle pasture that attracts singing bobolinks and swooping barn swallows as we discovered that day. It also provides ideal foraging habitat for the eastern bluebirds that breed in the nest boxes he has provided for them.

CP22 is one of 13 conservation practices in CREP, and one of the most popular. Another is CP1, the establishment of permanent introduced grasses and legumes on erodible cropland and CP2, the establishment of permanent native grasses, and we saw excellent examples of both on the 203-acre property of Robb and Lea Ann Kimble. Robb, accompanied by his six-year-old daughter Kayla, proudly showed off their 42 acres of warm and cool season grasses and legumes.

“We did it for habitat,” he told us, and Kimble planted 13 acres in warm season grasses–big and little bluestem and Indiangrass–and 22 acres in cool season grasses and legumes back in 2004. A year later, he wrote a “Field Note” for Quality Whitetails, illustrated with a photograph of him standing in his field with Kayla on his shoulders.

“I am 5’11,” he wrote, “and with my daughter on my shoulders the grass is as high as her head. As we had hoped it [their planting of grasses] has been well received by a broad range of wildlife. We have had the pleasure of viewing red foxes, bobcats, turkeys, many rare songbirds, and, of course, the magnificent whitetail.”

Because such CREP acres are not mowed during the nesting season, not only are nesting birds more successful, but the larger CREP fields support both more species and more obligate grassland species such as eastern meadowlarks, American kestrels, grasshopper, vesper and Savannah sparrows, bobolinks, dickcissels, mallards, and ring-necked pheasants than do similar-sized hayfields, according to recent studies by Margaret Brittingham, Kevin Wentworth, and Andy Wilson of Penn State. American kestrels and eastern meadowlarks were particularly successful on CREP fields.

In our mid-May visit to the Kimble farm, the warm season grasses had barely germinated, but their dried, shoulder-high, winter remains were impressive. Unlike cool season grasses, which begin growing in March and April, warm season grasses grow during June, July, and August. These native bunch grasses grow tall and put down deep roots that help to prevent soil erosion. They also remain standing throughout the winter and provide food as well as shelter for wildlife.

Perhaps his grandfather said it best when he told Walizer, “No man owns the land; you are only the caretaker for your generation. The goal is to leave the land better than you found it.”

The last place we visited was the property of Libby and Jim Walizer. I knew Jim from his work in the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship program and had been eager to see his beautiful, 250-acre farm, once primarily planted in corn and soybeans, now mostly devoted to a variety of conservation practices, including both CP22, CP1 and CP2.

Walizer is a wiry, energetic man in his mid-seventies who I think of as the experimenter. “I’m in the conservation business,” he told us, as he showed off his 22-acres of warm season switchgrass and wildflower mixture including blooming wild lupines that attract bobwhite quail. He and his family, who did all of the work, also planted another 21 acres not only with wildflowers and switchgrass but also little and big bluestem and Indiangrass back in 2004. After an accidental burn of those acres, Walizer told us that “Indiangrass beat out the bluestem.” That was the first year after the burn, but last year the other grasses also rebounded, according to Rohrer.

At the same time Walizer also planted cool season grasses in 14 field acres that border the warm season fields. His planting makes both conservation and economical sense. If he had rented out the acres to other farmers for growing standard crops, he would have received $50 an acre per year. From CREP he receives $112 an acre.

But as I looked across the road from Walizer’s farmhouse and saw rows of new homes, I realized that by selling his land to developers he could have made millions and retired to Florida with his wife. Instead, he remains on his land, an active farmer who still raises some beef cattle, but who is mostly interested in “giving this area back to nature instead of farming it fencerow to fencerow,” as he said when he and his wife were chosen Northeastern Regional Tree Farmers of the Year in 2006.

After we admired his warm season grasses and especially his lupines, we visited a portion of his forest, specifically his 5.8 acres of CP22 along Little Fishing Creek at the base of Nittany Mountain. There he and his family had planted tulip poplar, sugar maple, black locust, red oak and a tall variety of Chinese chestnut (as closely-related to our extirpated native American chestnut as possible), as well as the shrubs silky dogwood and silky willow.

Dissatisfied with the standard tree tubes, which he had used in his tree farm before his planting of a riparian forest buffer, he had been experimenting with a variety of different sizes and shapes for several years. Finally, he had developed his TIP System (Tree Incubation and Protection System). As an article he wrote in Pennsylvania Forests magazine explains, it “uses a plastic tube 16 inches high along with a 4-foot high plastic fence with 2-inch grids…The 16-inch tube protects the tree from sprays, rabbits, and rodents and still maintains the greenhouse effect [of the standard tubes]. The fencing protects the tree from deer browse, gives the tree wind stability, and eliminates excessive heat around the tree. The cost is less than $2.00 per shelter. There have been no birds in our tubes and I have found only six wasp nests in 600 tubes checked.” Altogether, he and his family built 1000 TIP System shelters, and he proudly showed them off to us.

Walizer, ever the rapid-talking raconteur, kept us entertained with story after story of his experiences in conservation practices over many years, including those in the CREP program. But perhaps his grandfather said it best when he told Walizer, “No man owns the land; you are only the caretaker for your generation. The goal is to leave the land better than you found it.”

No doubt, Heverly, Kimble, and all the other landowners participating in the CREP program throughout Pennsylvania would agree.

For more information on the CREP program, call toll-free 1-800-941-CREP (2737) and you will hear a recording that will explain the program and direct you to your local CREP coordinator. You can also visit your local U.S. Farm Service Agency office in your county Agriculture Service Center. Information on the Pennsylvania CREP program is here.

Illustrations: “Brook Trout,” by Bob Hines (courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s free image library); photo of tree grow tubes above a badly eroded streambank by Kelly Donaldson of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (used by permission). For more photos (including one of me), see the CBF’s own account of the outing here.



8 responses to “Saving the Future”

  1. Via Negativa » Blog Archive » Down to earth Avatar

    […] can find three new posts from her at the Marcia Bonta and Plummer’s Hollow sites — Saving the Future; Spring wildflowers: back on track; and April Journal Highlights […]

  2. bev Avatar

    This is an excellent piece on stream buffer zones. The CREP program sounds very good.

  3. Marcia Bonta Avatar

    Bev, Yes, but they are discontinuing it at the end of the year. And with the new interest in growing corn for ethanol, many such programs will be scrapped, especially in our Corn Belt. I only hope that folks will be inspired to do this on their own.

  4. bev Avatar

    How disappointing to read that the program will be scrapped. Up here, similar programs have inspired many farmers to seek ways to keep their cattle out of streams — a combination of fences, improvement of watering systems, and the building of buffer zones. It does tend to make a difference when there is some monetary perk involved. I’m very wary about seeing what will happen now that there’s so much emphasis on corn for ethanol. I hope that we won’t see a lot of unsuitable land being put into use for growing corn crops, but my fear is that we will see just that in the coming years.

  5. […] Those interested in conservation matters, will find Marcia Bonta’s piece entitled, Saving the Future, provides a very good read. A lot of important conservation issues take place at the grassroots […]

  6. Marcia Bonta Avatar

    Thanks for your boost for my column. Our DSL connection has been erratic and I’m behind in blog reading.

  7. D.Harris Avatar

    You have a wonderful blog with a better than average message. Keep informing the public, they are slowly coming around.

  8. Marcia Bonta Avatar

    Thanks for your encouragement, D. Harris.

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