The stream game is best played with as many players as possible

Young native black locusts thrive among the 800 trees planted by volunteers along a stream at Dean Saylor Park outside of Lititz, Pa.

I often find myself playing what I call the “stream game” while looking at digital maps. It’s a simple game involving aerial imagery and reconnaissance for future streamside, or “riparian,” tree plantings.

I start at the property I’m working on, which has a “naked” stream but one that, if I have my way, soon will be lined with a wide buffer of young trees. Then I follow the stream through the landscape — and get increasingly upset about how few trees are along it and how little forest cover there is in general.

It’s admittedly a pretty bad game. It lacks objectives, it’s impossible to win or lose, and it makes me feel terrible about the condition of our landscape. The presence or absence of a riparian forest around a stream is a strong determinant of its health. Those naked streams have unstable banks, less protection from runoff and little food for aquatic invertebrates. Plus, they likely get too hot in the summer to harbor many fish.

To me, one of the hardest parts of being a restoration professional is knowing this painful truth: We live in a landscape that is often denuded of nature. We got here not because of a few distant bad actors, but because of millions of uninformed decisions made by millions of individuals over hundreds of years. Restoring a creek takes decades of successful education and conservation efforts in the entire watershed.

This work is slow and difficult. There is still so much left to do and it can be hard to feel optimistic while playing the stream game, though every so often it can make my day. Last winter I was clicking around the map, feeling dejected as usual, until I came across what was clearly a young riparian forest buffer. The trees were in a tidy grid to facilitate maintenance mowing, and I could see the shadows of some of the trees’ young crowns. It took me a second longer to realize, with even more delight, that as the Pennsylvania forest program manager at the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, I had coordinated the planting of that buffer.

In the two years since the planting, the township has diligently taken care of their trees. If it wasn’t for their hard work mowing and spraying, I may not have even noticed the site. Without maintenance, it would look identical to a hayfield from the aerial.

The planting also owes its success so far to one volunteer in particular: a “Riparian Ranger” who asked not to be named here but has spent countless hours tending to the trees. The Riparian Rangers, a volunteer corps created by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, was formed to care for and monitor forest planting sites. Planting trees is quick, fun and gets lots of attention. Tending to them is long, arduous and unglamorous work.

Agricultural land provides a tremendous opportunity to implement cost-efficient conservation practices that directly improve stream quality, but this work cannot solely be the responsibility of the farming community.

Farmers need help, and our communities can provide that support, whether it entails planting trees, tending to them or simply donating to conservation organizations. Environmental health is a public health issue, after all.

Keep your eye on those naked streams, but don’t forget to tell your neighbors, friends and family that streams need trees. Don’t forget to invite them to a tree planting this fall. We’re all in this together, and we need each other to make progress.

Ryan Davis is manager of the Pennsylvania Forests Projects for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. This article, which has been edited for length, was originally published in the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.