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Buffer Strips: Common Sense Conservation

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Painting of buffers on a farm and a stream with birdsConservation Buffers

Conservation buffers are small areas or strips of land in permanent vegetation, designed to intercept pollutants and manage other environmental concerns. Buffers include: riparian buffers, filter strips, grassed waterways, shelterbelts, windbreaks, living snow fences, contour grass strips, cross-wind trap strips, shallow water areas for wildlife, field borders, alley cropping, herbaceous wind barriers, and vegetative barriers.

Strategically placed buffer strips in the agricultural landscape can effectively mitigate the movement of sediment, nutrients, and pesticides within farm fields and from farm fields. When coupled with appropriate upland treatments, including crop residue management, nutrient management, integrated pest management, winter cover crops, and similar management practices and technologies, buffer strips should allow farmers to achieve a measure of economic and environmental sustainability in their operations. Buffer strips can also enhance wildlife habitat and protect biodiversity.

Benefits of Buffers

Conservation buffers slow water runoff, trap sediment, and enhance infiltration within the buffer. Buffers also trap fertilizers, pesticides, pathogens, and heavy metals, and they help trap snow and cut down on blowing soil in areas with strong winds. In addition, they protect livestock and wildlife from harsh weather and buildings from wind damage. If properly installed and maintained, they have the capacity to:

  • remove up to 50 percent or more of nutrients and pesticides.
  • remove up to 60 percent or more of certain pathogens.
  • remove up to 75 percent or more of sediment.

Conservation buffers reduce noise and odor. They are a source of food, nesting cover, and shelter for many wildlife species. Buffers also provide connecting corridors that enable wildlife to move safely from one habitat area to another.

Conservation buffers help stabilize a stream and reduce its water temperature. Buffers also offer a setback distance for agricultural chemical use from water sources.

Like the trim on a house makes the house look better, well-planned conservation buffers improve the appearance of a farm or ranch. If used as part of a comprehensive conservation system, buffers will make good use of areas that often should not be cropped.

Key Messages

1. Conservation buffers work environmentally because they:

  • Control soil erosion by both wind and water.
  • Improve soil quality.
  • Improve water quality by removing sediment, fertilizers, pesticides, pathogens, and other potential contaminants from runoff.
  • Enhance fish and wildlife habitat.
  • Reduce flooding.
  • Conserve energy.
  • Protect buildings, roads, and livestock.
  • Conserve biodiversity.

2. Conservation buffers work economically because of financial incentives available through USDA conservation programs--the continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) sign-up, Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), general CRP, Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

3. Conservation buffers may help you meet Federal, state, or local pollution control requirements.

4. Many state and local governments--and even some private organizations--offer additional financial incentives to install conservation buffers.

5. Conservation buffers are a visual demonstration of your commitment to land stewardship.