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he first 20 projects in the Trees Forever Iowa Buffer Initiative have been selected and work is scheduled to begin this year. The 20 projects to be done in 1998 represent the first of five years of putting buffers on the ground in the state of Iowa and are the result of a unique, public-private partnership that will show landowners buffers at work, solving problems in varying soil types and terrain.

Trees Forever is working with landowners, the Agroecology Issue Team of the Leopold Center, and local natural resource professionals in developing the demonstration sites. More than 100 conservation professionals have now completed intensive workshops in buffer planning and implementation.

Landowner Satisfaction

Buffers are winning support from those who already have them on their land. In 1990 Story County farmer Ron Risdahl had a buffer installed on a portion of Bear Creek that runs through his farm. His farm has since become one of the nation’s preeminent buffer technology research sites. At the time, Risdahl wasn't looking to put a buffer on his land, but when he was approached by Iowa State researchers, he agreed to move forward with the project. “It was just something that came up. An opportunity came knocking and we answered and it's worked out great.”

Risdahl points out many benefits of having a buffer on his land. “Wildlife is one of the benefits we really enjoy all the animals and birds we have out there now. And of course, we don't have gullies washing down into the creek now. And while we don't have any income from the buffer now, we could down the road. The trees and switchgrass can be harvested and used, and of course, both regrow.”

Like many landowners, Risdahl had concerns about tree roots from the buffer plugging his tile lines. “But we just put in solid tile under the trees, and we haven't had any problems. As far as I'm concerned, the buffer is here to stay.”

Since the instalation of Risdahl's buffer in 1990, nine landowners have now invested in buffer technology on ten farms at the Bear Creek research site. In addition to improving water quality, and improving wildlife habitat, buffers hold potential as sources of biomass for forage, energy, timber or chip products, native prairie seeds, or berries and nuts.

The Trees Forever Iowa Buffer Initiative was created to show landowners the advantages of longterm land management practices by developing more demonstration projects like those at Bear Creek. Putting demonstration projects along streams and rivers will give landowners a chance to see how using trees and grasses will improve water quality, reduce soil erosion, and enhance landscapes and wildlife habitat. The Trees Forever Iowa Buffer Initiative will establish:

  • ten demonstration sites each year for five years, where field days demonstrating buffer techniques will be held in 1998; and ten project sites in areas of high priority, but which are less accessible;
  • a network of technical assistance to support landowners;
  • shelterbelts as buffers around livestock confinement operations;
  • a recognition program for landowners who protect streams and waterways with grass and tree buffers; and,
  • field days for farmers, rural landowners and youth to increase awareness of the value of buffers.

In addition to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and Novartis Crop Protection, Inc., other key sponsoring partners of the project are the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Division; United States Environmental Protection Agency; and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Also involved as key research partner is the Agroecology Issue Team of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames.

Buffer Design

The buffer technology used in the Trees Forever Iowa Buffer Initiative, referred to as a riparian management system, was developed by the Agroecology Issue Team of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

All waterways have a flood plain, scientifically referred to as a riparian zone, the waterway's natural buffer zone. Trees and plants growing in a buffer zone trap and hold waterborne sediment and filter out agricultural chemicals.

Riparian zones act as “living filters” for both surface and subsurface water by trapping sediment and modifying waterborne chemicals and pollutants be-fore they enter streams. Buffers also stabilize streambanks, reduce streambank erosion, increase waterholding capacity of soil, control flooding and help recharge ground water supplies.

In the past 50 years, most riparian zones in the Midwest were cleared for row crops or converted to pasture. Stream channels were straightened and deepened, and a complex network of agricultural tile now drains directly into streams.

All these modifications reduced the amount of time that water naturally stayed on or in the soil, where it was cleaned by the natural filtering processes. And while complete restoration of every natural riparian zone is not economically or logically feasible, the Trees Forever Iowa Buffer Initiative proves that it is possible to recreate lengthy segments of riparian buffer zones, thereby putting a natural system back in place. Restoration and management of riparian areas can lessen and perhaps reverse water quality problems as well as increase the quality of life for humans and wildlife.

Landowners can use any of the following components alone or in combination to create or restore a riparian buffer: 1) a buffer consisting of trees, shrubs, and grasses; 2) streambank stabilization, and 3) constructed wetlands. Live or dead plant material, fiber matting and rock can also be used to protect bare streambanks.

The Trees Forever Iowa Buffer Initiative is also serving as a national model for other states as they look to implement natural systems to maintain or improve water quality.

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