Buffers 101


Riparian Forest Buffer

What is a riparian forest buffer?

Forest buffers are the trees, shrubs and other plants that grow next to streams and rivers. Forest buffers are also called riparian or streamside buffers.

The trees, shrubs and other plants that grow next to streams and rivers are critical to the health of the land and to the Chesapeake Bay. These forest buffers prevent pollution from entering waterways, stabilize stream banks, provide food and habitat to wildlife and keep streams cool during hot weather.

For a more detailed definition, visit this USDA page.

Watch this video to learn more.

The Streamside Forest Buffer


Sediment, fertilizer and pesticides are carefully managed.

Zone 3 Runoff Control (20 feet)

Concentrated flows are converted to dispersed flows by water bars or spreaders, facilitating ground contact and infiltration.

Zone 2 Managed Forest (60 feet)

Filtration, deposition, plant uptake, anaerobic denitrification and other natural processes remove sediment and nutrients from runoff and subsurface flows.

Zone 1 Undisturbed Forest (15 feet)

Maturing trees provide detritus to the stream and help maintain lower water temperature vital to fish habitat.

Stream Bottom

Debris dams hold detritus for processing by aquatic fauna and provide cover and cooling shade for fish and other stream dwellers.

Zone 1 Undisturbed Forest (15 feet)

Tree removal is generally not permitted in this zone.

Zone 2 Managed Forest (60 feet)

Periodic harvesting is necessary in Zone 2 to remove nutrients sequestered in tree stems and branches and to maintain nutrient update through vigorous tree growth.

Zone 3 Runoff Control (20 feet)

Controlled grazing or haying can be permitted in Zone 3 under certain conditions.


Watering facilities and livestock kept out of the Riparian Zone insofar as practible.

The animated slideshow above takes you through the Riparian Buffer Zones. Place your curser over the slideshow to pause the rotation.

Frequently Asked Questions About Buffers

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Buffer FAQs

How much do buffers cost?
Can I plant fruit trees?
What about weeds?


Find the answer to these and many other questions in our Buffer FAQs (PDF).

Why Do Buffers Matter?

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Cleaner Streams with Better Water Quality

Forest buffers protect streams and local drinking water supplies by helping to intercept and process excess nutrients, sediments, and pathogens from entering them. Scientific studies show that 100 feet of streamside forest will adequately protect the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of most streams. However, narrower buffers are also beneficial for improving water quality.

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Better Habitat for Aquatic Life and Other Wildlife

“Trout Grow on Trees™” because forest buffers help increase the diversity and abundance of fish food – i.e, aquatic macroinvertebrates or “macros” – both directly by shedding leaves into streams for macros to feed upon, and indirectly by providing optimum light and temperature conditions for growing the preferred algae of macros. Streamside forests also create cooler, clearer, wider, more stable streams favored by native species of fish like brook trout while providing important habitat for birds, like wood ducks.
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Improved Recreation and Human Health Benefits

Forest buffers enhance recreational opportunities, including fishing, bird watching, hunting, hiking, and exploration with children and grandchildren. Numerous studies show significant human health benefits from recreating in forests or looking at trees, including increased immune system function, lower blood pressure, lower stress, improved mood, increased ability to focus, accelerated recovery from surgery or illness, increased energy level, and improved sleep.
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Healthier Stream Ecosystems Better Able to Process Pollution

Forest buffers restore the natural in-stream conditions of temperature, oxygen, and food (algae, leaf litter) and stabilize and widen stream channels. The widening of channels creates more habitat and a better-functioning, healthier ecosystem per unit length of streambed. Studies have shown that streams bordered by forest are up to 2-8 times more effective than those with grass borders in processing important substances, like excess nitrogen2.
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Enhanced Property Values, Benefits to Farms, Property Protection and Reduction of Flooding

Forest buffers can provide important economic benefits for farms, such as improved herd health and valuable assistance for alternate water, fencing and crossing. Forest buffers can enhance property values, prevent erosion and property loss from sloughing banks, regulate base flow of water to streams, and provide woody debris and wider stream channels for reducing downstream flooding. One tree can reduce stormwater runoff by 13,000 gallons a year.
Thanks to the Chesapeake Forest Buffers Riparian Network for this information. Please visit their Why Forest Buffers? page for more information and for references.

Buffer Project Components

Restoring a riparian buffer can include many components depending on the needs of your site. From planting trees, installing livestock exclusion fencing, stabilizing streambanks, enhancing wildlife habitat, and stewarding it long term, we are here to help you restore and protect your riparian buffer.

Explore our Programs to learn more.

Riparian Forest Buffers
Riparian buffers are the trees, shrubs, and other vegetation along our waterways. These streamside forests provide the James River and its tributaries with the protection they need. Riparian buffers slow flood water, improve water quality by filtering runoff from upland land use, provide canopy cover to shade and cool the stream, provide habitat for a variety of birds and small mammals, and are a great place for recreational activities such as fishing, hiking, and bird watching.
Agricultural Infrastructure

Agricultural infrastructure in our riparian areas may include stream exclusion fencing to keep livestock out of waterways, water source development, watering troughs, stream crossings, and rotational grazing. All or some of these components may be part of your project.

Streambank Stabilization

Streambank stabilization practices are implemented to address excessive erosion rates. Streambank stabilization can involve a variety of activities depending on the circumstances at a given site. These activities range from simply planting the bank to grading/matting/planting to installing deflection structures at the toe of the bank to armoring with large rock and/or tree roots. In some instances, the extent of streambank erosion and channel instability may require a more comprehensive restoration approach.

Before any land disturbing activity can occur please contact your local Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Environmental Quality and local zoning representative for the proper permits.

Wildlife Habitat

Healthy riparian areas provide food, shelter, and water for a unique wildlife community both on land and in the water. For example, the native tree Quercus Phellos (Willow Oak) grows well in a riparian buffer and provides abundant acorns for deer and ducks. Brook Trout depend on cool streams that are shaded by trees on its banks. Our freshwater mussels and macroinvertebrates depend on clean water and leaf litter from our native trees. These critters also play a role in filtering pollutants and as a food source for fish.

Buffer Protection

Whether you have an existing riparian forest that you want to protect for the future, or you’ve recently invested in restoration of riparian areas on your property, you may be interested in putting your land under conservation easement. Easements are a voluntary land preservation agreement between a landowner and a land conservation organization. By putting riparian buffers under easement, we can protect diversity in our ecological communities, preserve prime habitat for wildlife for hunting, fishing, and enjoyment, and protect water quality in the James.