October 23, 2005


Planting trees puts streams in balance

Natural buffers stop erosion, protect habitat

Volunteers plant trees on Fishkill Creek banks

By Elizabeth Leonard
For the Poughkeepsie Journal

For homeowners with streams in their backyard, planting trees near the banks can make a world of difference. Planted areas protect the stream by controlling erosion, enhancing wildlife habitat and filtering out pollutants.

Peter Groffman, a scientist at the Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, recently spoke about how residents can improve riparian buffer zones at a forum hosted by the Dutchess County Environmental Management Council.

Riparian, or "stream-side," buffer zones are the vegetated areas adjacent to streams and rivers.

The two best actions homeowners can take to protect streams are to stop mowing near the stream, and to plant native trees along the banks.

"You can't go wrong with riparian buffer zones," Groffman said, "because of the multiple benefits they offer."

Forests once covered Dutchess County. Tree roots held stream banks in place, their overhanging branches shaded streams enough for cold-water fish such as trout to thrive. The leaves they dropped provided a source of nutrients to the stream food web.

As farms, and now suburbs, encroached upon the region, the forested buffer was replaced by open land, parking lots and lawns.

Unfettered by leaves, sunlight now warms many streams to the point trout can't survive in them. Stream bank erosion is made possible in the absence of tree roots and magnified by swift and heavy runoff from impervious surfaces, such as parking lots and roads. Pollution that plants and trees would filter flows into streams.

The ability for forested buffers to filter groundwater is important, "especially if you are receiving water downstream that people are worried about," Groffman said, referring to bacterial and chemical pollution.

In regards to vegetation, scientists have discovered grass alone doesn't cut it, Groffman said. Forested buffers do a much better job of supporting the natural stream shape, habitat and internal cleansing processes than non-forested buffers.

Small streams support creeks, rivers

There are several large creeks and small rivers in the region, including the Wappinger and Fishkill creeks in Dutchess County, and the Wallkill River and Black Creek in Ulster County. Each is supported by a network of smaller streams, and each spills into the Hudson River.

The 211-square mile Wappinger Creek watershed is the largest in Dutchess, stretching through parts of 11 communities. About one third of Dutchess' groundwater is connected hydrologically to the creek.

"Wappinger Creek has a lot of life in it," Groffman said. The trees alongside it are good for trout and other fish that live in it.

"The leaves support the bugs, and the bugs are eaten by the fish," he said.

Volunteers have worked to improve stream banks along several local streams, including the headwaters of the Fishkill Creek in Union Vale. Lalita Malik has been working with the town's Conservation Advisory Commission to plant trees to stop erosion.

Because of the roads being built up around it, the creek has been eroding, toppling trees that now lack enough ground to support them.

In those situations, Groffman advised that either the stream needs to be raised up or that the banks can be graded.

"You need to dissipate the erosive energy of the water," he said.

Malik said the Department of Environmental Conservation provided trees and showed the volunteers how to plant them, and that mowers have stopped mowing so close to the creek.

"It is having some impact, but we still need to do some more," Malik said.

The Wappinger Creek Intermunicipal Council set a goal of protecting or restoring forested buffers to 15 miles of the creek by next year. The council is made up of towns in the watershed. A management plan for the Fishkill Creek, developed by volunteers working with the Environmental Management Council, also recommended restoring riparian buffers as a key to protecting the creek.

David Burns, the former Watershed Coordinator for the Environmental Management Council, said maintaining existing forests is as important as planting new trees. The Wappinger Creek, he said, has long stretches that are in good shape.

"It has a good forest buffer," he said, "so protection is the key, and the long-term solution."

Groffman emphasized planners and communities should consider the placement of restored buffers to maximize effectiveness. They should consider the soils, hydrology and vegetation along streams, as well as nearby urban areas, and plant in areas that will benefit the stream the most.

For homeowners with streams in their backyards, any form or degree of buffer is better than none.

Elizabeth Leonard is a senior at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie and an intern at the Journal.

4 steps to a healthier stream

1 - If there are healthy native plants and trees along the stream, don't disturb them.

2 - Plant native trees and plants. Studies suggest including at least a 100-foot natural buffer is most protective.

3 - Don't remove rocks and tree debris from the stream. If they pose a flooding hazard, seek professional advice and get appropriate state or federal permits.

4 - Don't dam or divert the stream's natural flow.


  • The Institute of Ecosystem Studies offers courses for homeowners and others about ecological approaches to landscaping and gardening. Visit www.ecostudies.org or call Luanne Panarotti at 845-677-9643.

  • The Department of Environmental Conservation and county Soil and Water Conservation districts offer annual tree and shrub seedling sales every spring. Prices vary.

    In Dutchess County, e-mail dutchess@ny.nacdnet.org or visit www.dutchess.ny.nacdnet.org or call 845-677-8011 ext. 3. In Ulster County, visit www.co.ulster.ny.us/resources/conservation.html or call 845-883-7162 ext. 5.

  • The Arbor Day Foundation offers 10 tree seedlings to new members for a $10 fee. Visit www.arborday.org or send check to National Arbor Day Foundation, 100 Arbor Ave., Nebraska City, NE 68410.

  • The DEC sells tree seed-lings for plantings on private and public lands that benefit the environment. Visit www.dec.state.ny.us/website/dlf/privland/nursery/treeshrub.html or call 1-518-587-1120.

  • Private nurseries sell larger trees for planting.

  • Fishkill Creek Watershed Committee: Tips on Watershed Care web page.

If you go

  • What: Landscapes for Healthy Ecosystems: Green Landscape Practices in the Hudson River Watershed.
  • When: Nov. 15, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
  • Where: Institute of Ecosystem Studies, 65 Sharon Turnpike, Millbrook.
  • Who should attend: Landscape professionals, property managers, and interested residents.
  • Cost: Free.
  • Respond by: Nov. 8.
  • Contact: www.ecostudies.org/green_landscaping_symposium.html or 845-677-9643.

Copyright 2005, Poughkeepsie Journal. Reprinted with Permission.
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