Riparian buffers: Restoring the home of the Buckeyes (and more)

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WOOSTER, Ohio – Riparian buffers, borders of plant life along waterways, are good for the water and also the land.

They filter runoff and take out pollutants before those pollutants foul streams and groundwater.

And they stabilize river banks, give homes to wildlife, and make streams cooler and cleaner for fish.

Experts promote them, and more people build them, but how do riparian buffers work? And how can new buffers be built even better?

Learn, share. That’s what Charles Goebel hopes to learn and share with farmers and foresters.

Goebel, an Ohio State University forest ecologist based on the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center’s Wooster campus, studies Ohio’s riparian areas to see what grows there, how they function and the best ways to restore them.

Many of those areas have been harmed by development.

The aim of Goebel’s work: new, effective riparian plantings – ideally including native trees such as sycamores, cottonwoods and, yes, Ohio buckeyes – specially designed for and adapted to the state.

Typically. Typically, revamped riparian buffers, especially those on farms, are seeded with non-native, cool-season grasses, which are relatively easy to establish and care for.

But they aren’t what used to grow on the land and may or may not be the best choice.

Trees, shrubs and warm-season grasses, native and well-adapted, may be better.

Goebel wants to know.

Research. Planting and design recommendations, rooted in his research, will follow.

“We know from other states how effective grass buffers are at filtering sediment and nutrients from runoff,” Goebel said. “But for Ohio we really don’t know the specifics, and part of my research is to get that information so we can start to mix and match different management options.”

One experiment, for instance, looks at conventional-tillage, conservation-tillage, no-till and organic farm fields and compares how grass buffers and tree buffers filter the runoff.

The goal, Goebel said, is to find the best combination for a farmer’s particular situation – practices that when put together help both the farm and nearby waters.

References. At the same time, Goebel and his co-researchers are developing “suites of reference conditions” – detailed profiles – as to how the state’s riparian areas looked 200 years ago. Most were heavily wooded.

But exactly what trees grew there and how they were distributed hasn’t been fully documented.

To do that, the scientists are scouring old studies, vegetation surveys and land-office records.

And they’re studying relatively undisturbed forests in places like Johnson Woods State Nature Preserve in Wayne County and Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northeast Ohio.

“If we can understand how those forests are organized, we can get a better handle on how to design riparian restoration projects,” Goebel explained.

Benefits. Among other benefits, trees in riparian zones give shade that cools the water, a key for sensitive fish like native brook trout – formerly found in northeast Ohio, thought to be extirpated in the 1940s, but discovered in the ’70s and still surviving in a small, clean, fragile stream in Geauga County.

And the roots of those trees, plus those of neighboring shrubs, grasses and wildflowers, form a thick, hungry web that pulls out pollutants – nutrients, bacteria, sediment – before they reach streams.

Common Ohio riparian plants include swamp white oak, black willow, red maple, green ash, bayberry, blueberry, red-osier dogwood, palm sedge, switchgrass, big bluestem, soft rush, viola, monarda, blue flag, trillium, turtlehead, swamp milkweed and Jack-in-the-pulpit.

Restoration? “It’s impossible to restore things to how they were 200 years ago,” Goebel said.

“Forests are always changing. But we can try to direct (riparian) areas onto a successional trajectory that mimics those conditions and restores the functional processes. That’s what we’re after.”

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