Field Notes: Buffer Benefits for River and Trail

By Deya Ramsden, VDOF Middle James River Forest Watershed Project Coordinator

A newly expanded riparian forest buffer in Nelson County is not only protecting the Rockfish River, but also enhancing wildlife habitat and beautifying a local trail.

Last winter, Rockfish Valley Foundation President Peter Agelasto met with Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) staff to discuss improving the Rockfish Valley Trail. His idea was to expand the existing buffer, to better shade the river and protect it from sediment and pollutants, while also diversifying the plant species composition within the buffer. James River Buffer Program Coordinator Deya Ramsden, and area foresters Martha Warring and B.J. Butler, worked together to create a plan that included planting 570 native shrubs and trees, managing invasive species, and recommending future maintenance. The project was funded through the James River Buffer Program, with matching funds from the Virginia Trees for Clean Program.

Conservation Services Incorporated (CSI) was contracted to install and maintain the planting. On March 23, CSI planted seedlings, complete with tree shelters, in a 1 ¾-acre area along the trail. The shrub species were chosen for multiple reasons: flowers that attract pollinators, fruits or seeds for birds, ability to form colonies from the roots and thus discourage invasive species, and ability to thrive in the partial shade of a forest understory. The species planted were buttonbush, hazel-alder, red osier and silky dogwoods, false indigo and southern arrowwood. The tree species selected included persimmon, pawpaw, and red mulberry, which have fruits favored by wildlife (and people); sycamore, river birch, and yellow-poplar, which are fast growing pioneer species that frequently colonize streambanks; redbud, with early spring flowers valued by people and pollinators; and pin oak, a long-lived, slow grower that adapts well to wet conditions.

The shelters, or “tubes,” installed by CSI protect the one-year-old seedlings from trampling, deer browse, and vole damage, and they aid in maintenance. The shelters provide a favorable growing environment, free from wind and drastic temperature changes, giving the seedlings time to focus on getting tall. Shelters are removed once the tree extends three inches out of the top of the tube. VDOF recommends using bird netting to cover the top of tree tubes to prevent songbirds from entering and becoming trapped in the tubes. Tree planters should leave a quarter-sized opening in the net for the tree shoot to emerge and remove the nets when the tree begins emerging from the tube to prevent the stem from becoming entangled as it grows.

Tree shelters protect new seedlings.

CSI will return in late spring to apply herbicide, in order to reduce weed competition around the seedlings and target invasive species along the trail. The first three years is a crucial time period for young seedlings, and maintenance is required to allow seedlings to gain growth and outcompete the weeds. Not many people realize that fescue, the most common pasture grass, is a non-native, aggressive species that competes with seedlings for moisture and nutrients. If grass is not controlled around the seedlings, the buffer may not survive at a level that results in a future forest. During planting, a small area is scalped to remove the grass, but follow-up maintenance with herbicide, mowing or weed-whacking is needed to control grass as the seedlings get established. Foresters will inspect the buffer annually to assess its progress and adjust maintenance requirements over the next three years.

Future plans for the trail include addressing areas where compaction is causing concentrated flow of sediment to reach the river. Several best management practices (BMPs) can mitigate these conditions, including temporarily blocking some access points to give them time to “rest.” In the meantime, consider a visit to the lovely Rockfish Valley, where you can walk the trail and envision those young trees grown into a future forest.

About the James River Buffer Program

The James River Buffer Program began in 2019 and is funded through a grant from the Virginia Environmental Endowment. The program is carried out through partnering organizations, VDOF and the James River Association (JRA), who draw on their expertise and community connections to help landowners install buffers. The program is turn-key, not a cost-share, offering installation of seedlings, materials, and three years of follow-up maintenance and guidance at no cost. This flexible program is open to any landowner in need of a buffer. Through VDOF, rural, residential, commercial, and county or city owned lands are eligible for enrollment, while JRA focuses on rural lands with the highest priority of buffer need. The application process is simple. Learn more and request a consultation, or reach out to your local VDOF forester for more information.

About the Virginia Trees for Clean Water Program (VTCW)

VDOF’s Virginia Trees for Clean Water (VTCW) program is funded by the USDA Forest Service Chesapeake Bay Watershed Forestry Program, Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund, and Department of Environmental Quality’s Chesapeake Bay Regulatory and Accountability Program. VTCW is designed to improve water quality across the Commonwealth through on-the-ground efforts to plant trees where they are needed most. Goals are to expand tree canopy, positively impact water quality, increase energy conservation practices, advance community health, and grow recreation and educational opportunities. VTCW provides matching funds to the James River Buffer Program for projects that meet the program criteria. In a typical year, the program awards grants of up to $14,000 per proposal, with an aim of a 50/50 match for the project. Contact Lara Johnson for more information.

Field Notes: In This Together, Apart

by Sarah Parmelee, Area Forester

Despite a spring shrouded in uncertainty, VDOF forester Sarah Parmalee found hope and normalcy in a very simple forestry task – planting trees with her community, together but apart. Tree planting projects were very different during the 2020 spring planting season, but forestry work must continue to keep our forests, waterways and communities healthy and hopeful. Sarah is thankful for the people and organizations that made sure critical tree planting projects, like riparian buffers, were still completed despite the obstacles we’re collectively facing.

 I have never appreciated how special tree planting was until this spring. As a forester, you have to like planting trees, it just goes without saying. But in a normal year, you’re rushing to help with a planting after visiting a landowner who needs a plan … hoping that it rained enough that you don’t get a fire when the winds pick up in the afternoon … and knowing that you still have to prepare for an outreach event on the weekend. Tree planting becomes one more thing piled on an already-full plate in spring.

Spring is arguably the busiest and often most stressful time of year for foresters in Virginia; it combines prescribed burning season with wildfire season, planting season and Arbor Day. February through April we are hopping, working odd hours (including weekends) and we’re literally (and figuratively) putting out fires.

This year, nothing was normal due to the COVID-19 crisis. With events cancelled and stay-at-home orders in place, our spring schedules looked different.  At first, it was actually nice to miss those pesky meetings we didn’t really want to sit through, but then we started going weeks without seeing our coworkers or being able to meet with forest landowners like we were used to. One of the normal activities that changed dramatically was our riparian buffer planting season.

Saraha Parmalee_Riparian Buffer Planting_Huge Persimmon SeedlngsRiparian buffers are some of the most important forest in our state. “Riparian” evolved from the Latin word “ripa” meaning streambank, so these are trees planted alongside streams. Unlike the hundreds of acres of pine in Southside Virginia, these narrow forests will likely never be harvested; their value is not in board feet but in the water quality and wildlife habitat they protect and provide. As the riparian buffer trees, grow they will intercept ground pollutants (such as fertilizer and nutrients from manure from adjacent fields or residential areas) before they reach the stream and will use them to grow. They will help to stabilize the soil with their roots – minimizing erosion, absorbing runoff and reducing flooding downstream. In addition, the trees and shrubs planted alongside streams provide habitat for many kinds of wildlife including important pollinator species that rely on native plants for their whole life cycle.

All these “ecosystem services” provided by forested buffers are incredibly important, not only for Virginia but also, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and West Virginia because we are all part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, meaning that the rivers from these states collectively feed into the Bay and have the ability to impact the delicate ecology and economies associated with that incredible body of water.

Most of these plantings in my work areas are organized by Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) or nonprofit organizations. The actual planting is carried out by staff with the help of volunteers, such as local school kids and Master Naturalists. These planting initiatives provide opportunities to get folks involved in their local watershed and to help get trees in the ground.

However, again, because of COVID-19 this usual approach went out the window in the first few weeks of March and we had to adjust.

Video Credit: Friends of the Rappahannock

Calling off a forest management practice until next year is not uncommon; things come up. However, the tree seedlings for this year’s plantings had already been purchased from the nurseries and were sitting in our tree coolers. They would only sit so long without rotting. These projects couldn’t wait. So, our natural resources community decided to do what we do best; pull together to get stuff done.

In Fauquier County, John Marshall SWCD set up a sign-up sheet to ensure only a small group of folks was at each planting. We traveled separately and stayed out of each other’s space; fortunately, we were planting the trees 10-12 feet apart so it was easy to socially distance. Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR) and Friends of Goose Creek contributed muscle and morale. Thanks to the efforts of these folks, not a single planting in the John Marshall SWCD area was canceled. Additional tree plantings happened in Rappahannock, Culpeper and Madison counties, orchestrated by the go-getters at FOR. Over in Highland County, VDOF forester Clint Folks and the Mountain Valley Work area helped with similar plantings.

I was able to participate with most of the plantings in my work area. It is very different when you’re used to planting with large groups of teenagers who have boundless amounts of energy to burn. An acre feels a lot bigger when you only have six people to scalp, plant and install protective tubes on 300 trees.

Sarah Parmelee_Riparian Buffer Planting_2020

But It was arguably some of the most fun that a lot of us had in weeks. The spring was shrouded in uncertainty — every trip to the grocery store was like “Mad Max” meets an episode of “Chopped” and there was no end in sight. Planting season this year was different, but it was special. It meant a lot to the folks involved. It was comforting to see that we could still do our jobs; put trees in the ground, make the world better. Because of the folks who came together to make planting season happen, one day there will be a forest where once there was none.

There is an old saying that “the best time to plant a tree if twenty years ago or today”. Trees are hope for the future. We get our seedlings as little brown sticks and we stick them in the ground and hope that when we come back they will be alive. Some of them will be and some of them will not –  that is why we plant more than one. Planting trees is investing the future, whatever future it may be. Whatever happens, the rains will come, roots will grow and leaves will unfurl in the spring.

Thanks for believing in trees. Let’s do it again next year.

Forestry for Water Quality

The results are in, and the 2019 annual Silviculture Best Management Practices (BMP) Implementation Monitoring Report shows that the logging industry and timberland owners continue to excel at protecting Virginia’s water resources. Forests are essential to clean, healthy drinking water and watersheds, and sustainably-managed forests are the most effective land cover for protecting water quality.  Continue reading Forestry for Water Quality

Field Notes: A Tale of Cypress Trees and Floods

by Senior Area Forester Scott Bachman

Earlier this summer my co-workers and I were finally able to get out and measure a harvest in Southampton County.   The harvest had been in a stand of bottomland hardwoods.  The landowner retained a riparian buffer on both sides of the stream channel during the harvest to protect the water quality of a significant tributary of the Blackwater River. The Blackwater River is a designated Scenic River in Southeastern Virginia that eventually flows past the City of Franklin and into North Carolina.  It is a substantial source of fresh water for the Albemarle Sound.  This buffer qualified the landowner to take advantage of the Riparian Buffer Tax Credit Program.

Heavy spring rains had finally stopped and the water had finally subsided enough to walk the harvest area.  We headed out to the tract early in the morning to beat the fast-rising temperature.  Unfortunately, we were not early enough!

On-site, our team split up since the harvest was on both sides of the broad bottomland flat.  I took the far side of the property.  After a half hour or so, I began to curse my choice of where I was working.  It was hot and occasionally flooded.  I even scared a great blue heron out of the harvest area.  You know it is a wet area when the great blue herons are hunting in it!

About that time it dawned on me how lucky I was that this was my office for the day!  I had just seen a great blue heron up close.   Up on the highlands of this tract there were a couple bobwhite quail whistling, trying to court the favor of a female.  Around my feet were a myriad of frogs jumping from one puddle to another.  Signs of life were everywhere around me.

People may not think about a harvested area as a nursery but it surely is.

Bottomland Harvest


Not only were signs of animal life abundant in the rapidly drying rich soil, but under my muddy boots were thousands of tiny bald cypress seedlings Cypress on dry site along with regenerating grasses, forbs and other tree species.

Bald cypress has an interesting method of recolonizing a disturbed wet flood plain.  You might assume that the seedlings result from seed that fell from a tree directly over the spot that is now supporting the carpet of cypress seedlings.  That may happen in some cases, but cypress trees drop their seed in the late fall and early winter when water levels at their base may be high and rising.  Bottomland forests are not typically harvested during seed fall due to this high water level.  Where could all this seed come from if it did not come from trees that were on the site?

Cypress seed is not heavy.  As the fall flood waters creep into the bottomland areas it carries the seeds of cypress trees growing in the watershed.   During the flooding season, the seed will float downstream or perhaps even upstream!  As spring fades to summer the water level in our swamps drops.  Bald cypress seeds simply float with the floods until waters recede and they are deposited on the freshly laid layer of silt! During years of very high water, cypress seeds can be carried well up into what might be considered “high land” Cypress Regeneration  These dryland cypress may have more competition from other trees but if they get sufficient sunlight, they will do well and eventually become spectacular members of the forest canopy.

Bald cypress seedlings that develop on the wet soils in swamps must be able to grow tall enough to be higher than the flood waters when they return in the winter.  Because of this, cypress trees are very fast growing trees in their youth.  The Virginia Department of Forestry nursery grows and sells bald cypress seedlings.  These trees are one-year-old seedlings.  When they arrive on your doorstep they are often more than three feet tall! The seedlings I saw were, at most, probably only two months old.

Living in Southeastern Virginia, I have developed a fondness for bald cypress.  The feather-like foliage is beautiful in the summer and striking in fall color.  As a gymnosperm species it is unique in that it drops its foliage in the winter.

Mature Cypress


Bald cypress is an excellent yard/urban tree.  In dry settings the tree will not develop the characteristic knees found on trees in its native wetland site.  It is very tolerant of poor soils and soil compaction, relatively pest free, rot resistant and fast growing.   The fine feathery “leaves” are easy to clean from yards with either a rake or blower.  Just make sure you have plenty of space when planting this tree.  Cypress can easily top 80 feet tall and live for hundreds of years!

Field Notes: Riparian Buffers and the Sargasso Sea…What’s the Connection?

by VDOF Senior Area Forester Scott Bachman

An SMZ or streamside management zone, also known as a riparian buffer, is an area along a stream or creek (or a river if you have one in your back yard!).  In forestry this SMZ is commonly wooded (grass buffers can be very important in agriculture areas).  During a timber harvest the VDOF encourages all landowners to retain at minimum 50 percent of the trees in these edges for at least 50 feet back from the water’s edge.

Retaining these trees will help to keep water temperatures cooler, reduce the amount of sediments that may enter the water and absorb nutrients that may drain toward the water.  These retained forests also are used by wildlife for nesting, roosting, travel and resting to name but a few uses.

Trees and shrubs provide a buffer along the Nottoway River (Photo credit: Robby Batte)
Trees and shrubs provide a buffer along the Nottoway River (Photo credit: Robby Batte)

SMZs are one of the Best Management Practices (BMP) used in forestry to protect the soil and water resources on properties.  In non-Chesapeake Bay localities, BMP’s like SMZs are put in place voluntarily by the landowner.  In counties that are in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, BMPs are required to comply with the Chesapeake Bay Act.  Talk to your VDOF forester or consultant forester to plan your BMP implementation prior to harvest.

To the right of the fence you can see young trees that have been planted as part of a riparian buffer on a cattle farm in Augusta County. (Photo: VDOF)

I was out this spring GPS measuring an SMZ for a potential Riparian Buffer Tax Credit in my work unit.  The water flowing in the channel that had been buffered during a timber harvest was flowing fast and crystal clear.  That got me thinking of all the “ecosystem services” that SMZs and forests provide.

You may know that forests and SMZs protect water quality by filtering sediments and nutrients that might flow overland and through the soil and into larger rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay.  In many places in Virginia these waters flow into reservoirs that provide drinking water to our small and large communities.  That in itself would make SMZs some of the most valuable forest land in Virginia.

Juvenile shad
Juvenile shad (Photo credit: Eric Brittle, Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries)

It was nearly April and in our work area that means it is time for shad and herring to begin their “run” upstream. I happened to run into Eric Brittle, a Department of Game and Inland Fisheries fish biologist, at the recent Chowan Soil and Water Conservation District Farm Day in Southampton County.  I asked him if these spawning fish would have lived in the stream that had been protected during harvest.

American Shad
American shad (Photo credit: Eric Brittle, Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries)

He explained that shad and herring spend most of their lives in the salty waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.  In the spring of the year, adult fish return to fresh water streams to mate and lay their eggs.  Shad and herring are not as common as they once were in Virginia’s waterways.  Eric said that where I was in the Blackwater River watershed was probably too far upstream for them to reach.

Hickory Shad
Hickory shad (Photo Credit: Eric Brittle, Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries)

He went on to tell me that we have another fish that most certainly does make it all the way from the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!  American eels are spawned in the Sargasso Sea and eventually make their way back to the freshwater streams that feed the Chesapeake Bay. (An interesting side note: The Sargasso Sea is the only sea without a land boundary).

American eel (photo credit: Troy Tuckey/Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

In these freshwater streams they mature and live until they return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.  An even more fantastic story is that if your watershed is connected to the Chesapeake Bay (any place east of the western edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains), it is very possible that it supports these long-range travelers.

side view
A young eel in the “glass” stage (Photo credit: Troy Tuckey/Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

It was not that long ago that many people that lived in Virginia could expect to perhaps never leave the Old Dominion in their lifetime.  But these aquatic Virginia natives could not have survived without making journeys of thousands of miles.   The next time you see a strip of trees in the middle of a harvest area, know that the landowner has contributed to the life cycle of the American eel, and perhaps even shad and herring.

Note: Featured image at top is an American eel. Photo taken by Troy Tuckey, Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? Dec. 27, 2017

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

Creek Treasures

An important skill for foresters is hopping across creeks without falling in, especially during cold weather.  Last week, I was mapping creeks alongside a cutover to assist a landowner with a Riparian Buffer Tax Credit application.  Wooded buffers along streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay are called riparian forests and help protect our water quality.  Virginia landowners can receive a tax credit for preserving riparian forest buffers along waterways during a timber harvest operation.

Usually, creeks in the Coastal Plain have muddy bottoms, so the gravelly looking area of this creek made me stop to look closer.


The rocky looking objects are all fossils from the Yorktown Formation, which is a layer of bedrock formed during the Pliocene Epoch, 2.5 – 5 million years ago.  There are two fossilized oyster shells in the lower left, and the large scallop shell above them is the Virginia state fossil, Chesapecten jeffersonius.  In the center is a clump of fossilized barnacles.  There are several other familiar shell shapes as you examine the photo more closely.

Creeks and riverbanks in the Coastal Plain can reveal these fossils as water cuts through the exposed outcrops of the Yorktown Formation.  This creek was part of the ocean bed 4 million years ago, but it is 45 miles away from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean today.