Willow buffer planted by the late Jack Huestis to protect the stream. Note the sediment trapped and stable banks near the vegetation.
Farmers have been blamed for much of the nutrient loading going into Lake Champlain. They have taken it on the chin numerous times for being polluters. Sometimes they deserved it; most times not.
The reality is that all of us contribute in one way or another. Fishermen trample banks, loggers cross streams, and sediment washes off roads and parking lots from the grit spread to control ice. And, of course, people toss waste over the banks because they don’t want to go to the dump. Nutrient runoff comes from many sources, not just farmland. Farmers, however, are doing something special to help curb the problems.
Cows in streams are a natural thing, like deer drinking out of a brook. The problem is when you get 100 of them there for an extended period of time. That’s a different story. Stream banks get pounded by hooves, erosion takes place, and the manure is spread in the brook, not on the pasture where it should be. Sediment and nutrients then enter the waterway. There is a simple fix: fencing and planting vegetative buffers.
Planting riparian buffers along stream banks is one of my passions, and I truly believe they are one of the easiest, cost effective and ecologically sensible things a farm can do to alleviate the problem.
Riparian buffers are strips of trees and bushes planted parallel to the stream with a width of 35 feet or more. The vegetation traps sediment, absorbs nutrients and provides stability to the stream banks due to the root systems of the plants. The goal is to trap the runoff and nutrients before they enter the stream.
As a guy who likes to walk streams and fly fish, one thing I love to see are lots of willows growing along streams. Willow shrubs are low growing, provide shelter for fish by overhanging the banks, have tremendous root systems to stabilize the banks and it’s a great place for terrestrial bugs, worms and other critters to live. If the buffer is managed, so the vegetation is kept in a brushy state and not overgrown with shade trees, it will also make great woodcock habitat. Buffers are also home to a variety of birds, amphibians and reptiles.
Plan ahead before you plant. Think about the habitat you want to create, such as brush and grass, early successional or mature woods. What you plant and your willingness to manage will make a difference.
Conservation is not just about stopping nutrients from getting to Lake Champlain; it’s putting all the ecological and economic pieces in place to make it work for the landowner, wildlife and the stream inhabitants. Not only is it good for the stream and lake, it must be easy on the landowner’s wallet. Conservation needs to be low cost and high in benefits.
Many farmers in the Champlain Valley have installed buffers along their stream banks. The Leerkes Farm in Ticonderoga planted trees and shrubbery a few years ago to protect the banks of their previously pastured stream.
Shaun Gilliland in Willsboro will be planting a variety of fruit trees, berry bushes and other plants. This will provide an alternative income in the future by selling the products like jam to supplement his beef operation. The rooted vegetation will provide stream protection, and the waste fruit will provide excellent food for bugs and worms, and yes, they both feed fish.
The Leerkes and Gillilands are Essex County Farm Bureau members, and they lead by example. These guys realize the economics of this area depends on farms, forestry and recreation like fishing and hunting. Managed habitat supports greater populations of stream life, farm and forest wildlife. What these farmers are doing is a great value to all of us, not just Lake Champlain.
Although there have been incidents where farm runoff has hurt fisheries, they are few and far between. Most streams may actually benefit from some nutrients, but that’s another story.
One simple trick all of us “streamwalkers” can do is to take 2-foot cuttings from the growing willows and push them half way into the soft moist mud in the sunny bare spots along the banks. This bio-engineering technique doesn’t hurt the host plant, will allow more willows to spread, provides overhanging fish habitat and keep the banks from eroding. The other great benefit: it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a penny, and that in itself is a miracle of biblical proportions now days.
Rich Redman is a retired District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid outdoorsman. He may be reached at email@example.com.