Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North Buffer Strips Are Nothing New in the North

By Shawn Perich

Governor Dayton’s proposal to establish a 50-foot buffer along all state waterways may have caused some folks in northern Minnesota to involuntarily scratch their scar tissue. In the north, the idea of protecting water quality by leaving buffer strips of vegetation is not a new idea. It is something the state’s loggers do voluntarily as a matter of course.

But it wasn’t always that way. Timber harvesting came under scrutiny during the 1980s, when growing demand for forest products resulted in a noticeable increase in logging. Environmentally minded citizens petitioned the state Environmental Quality Board to request a study of the sustainability of timber harvest and potential environmental impacts of harvest practices. The EQB responded by commissioning a Generic Environmental Impact Statement on Timber Harvesting and Forest Management in Minnesota.

The outcome of this process was the Sustainable Forest Resources Act, which was signed into law in 1995. The law provided the structure for forest stakeholders—the timber industry, environmentalists, sportsmen, government agencies and more—to establish comprehensive forest harvest guidelines. The guidelines, which are voluntary, cover all aspects of logging and reforestation, with a bottom line of protecting water and soil resources.

Creating the harvest guidelines was a momentous task. Committees of stakeholders and scientists struggled to hammer out guidelines that, based on the best available science, protected the resources and were practical for loggers. Reaching consensus on any guideline wasn’t easy, but reaching agreement on buffer strips to protect streams, lakes and wetlands was the most contentious debate.

While everyone agreed it was important to prevent erosion, increases in water temperature due to loss of shade and the loss of shoreline cover, it was difficult for the various interests to decide how wide the buffer area should be and whether any timber harvest could be allowed within it. Economics drove the debate. Industry representatives viewed the buffer strips as “locking up” a portion of the available timber supply. In the end, a varying scale of buffers was agreed upon, with the maximum width for trout streams and lakes (currently 165 feet) and the minimum for other waterways at 50 feet—which is the width the Governor proposed for agriculture.

Although the riparian guidelines for timber harvest are voluntary, continuous monitoring has shown good, though not perfect, compliance. Researchers have found the riparian guidelines are protecting water resources in the forest and not limiting timber harvest. The controversy over the guidelines has largely faded away.

Apparently, the forestry community has made far greater strides at protecting water quality than what’s occurred in the agricultural region. I once heard a story about a group of forest soil scientists who invited one of their farmland counterparts to join them on a field tour of some logging sites and look at erosion issues. After visiting the first site, the farmland scientist refused to get out of the van at the next stop. He said that compared to the agricultural erosion problems he encountered on a daily basis, the logging sites weren’t anywhere near problematic.

Maybe some of the lessons learned in the development of forestry riparian guidelines can be applied to the development of farmland waterway buffers, although there are significant differences between the forest and the farm. For starters, much of Minnesota’s forest is owned by the public. State, county and national forest land managers must take into account the public’s best interest when making management decisions. In contrast, farmland is privately owned and the economic interests of the landowner drive decision-making.

Another difference is that loggers primarily operate on land they do not own, but where they have purchased the standing timber for harvest. In such a situation, it is easier to apply a voluntary guideline, especially on publicly owned land. The voluntary nature of the guidelines also applies peer pressure on the logging community. No one wants to be known as a bad actor—such a reputation isn’t good for business. When attempting to get thousands of private landowners to create buffer strips along waterways, the additional leverage of state enforcement, as suggested by the Governor, may be the best way to ensure success.

The process won’t go anywhere unless the Governor, via the Legislature, finds a way to bring everyone to the table to hash out their differences and create an effective strategy for protecting our waters from agricultural runoff. You can bet farmland groups will show up, as well as representatives from government agencies and the sportsman organizations concerned about ducks and pheasants. However, mainstream environmental groups often seem to be a day late and a dollar short when it comes to addressing water quality issues in the agricultural region. They can’t expect sportsmen to go it alone on this one.

We will likely hear familiar arguments in opposition of buffer strips, such as complaints about the loss of cropland, landowner rights and government “takings” of private property. These are valid concerns, but, as the Governor has said, while land belongs to the landowner, the water belongs to everyone. Protecting the quality of our waters is of paramount importance. The challenge will be addressing landowner concerns while standing firm on the need to protect water quality.

Bringing Dayton’s buffer proposal to fruition won’t happen overnight. However, if the Governor is serious about carrying forward his vision for protecting our waters, he has four years to work on it. He may have picked the right idea for the right time. Currently, Minnesota’s farmland wildlife populations are in the worst shape they’ve been in since the 1980s. Not only are we worried about the future of ducks and pheasants, but also creatures like honeybees and monarch butterflies. The hard times on the landscape ought to inspire those of us who care to do whatever we can to recover what’s been lost.

Buffer strips alone won’t restore Minnesota’s pheasant population to its former glory, but it is a step in the right direction. For the first time in many years, Minnesota’s conservationists have caught the attention of a Governor who shares their concerns. Hopefully, the conservation community will make hay while sun shines.

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