From Washington to Pennsylvania, the National Conservation Buffer Initiative is picking up steam.

In fact, enrollments spurted by a whopping 44% after the new signing bonuses and increased cost-sharing incentives were launched in May of 2000.

The buffer initiative, begun in 1997, charged out the gate with a battle cry of “Farm The Best, Buffer The Rest.” Its highly ambitious goal was 2 million miles of buffers by the end of 2002. It's now at 1.2 million miles.

Initiative organizers may not make the lofty goal, but they're making a hard run at it, says Max Schnepf, national coordinator and a Natural Resources Conservation Service conservationist at Ankeny, IA. Even if they don't reach it, they'll be farther along the road to a cleaner environment than if they'd set a smaller one.

Conservation buffers include: riparian buffers (trees, shrubs, grasses along watercourses), grass filter strips, grassed waterways, shelterbelts, field windbreaks, living snow fences, contour grass strips, crosswind trap strips, wellhead protection areas and shallow water areas for wildlife.

One reason for the initiative's new growth, over and above the new financial incentives, is the satisfaction of early enrollees who jumped in right away — even if financial rewards weren't quite as attractive. These farmers are spreading the word.

Consider, for example, Leon Kennebeck. In the spring of 1997, he established 32.9 acres of filter strips 75' wide along both sides of 1.5 miles of streams on his farm near Carroll, IA.

“It's important to me to keep the soil in place and the herbicides and fertilizer nutrients out of the creeks, because those streams end up in Lake Panorama,” Kennebeck says. “You just need to walk in these buffer areas that have been there a couple of years and notice how the buffer has caught the soil before it gets down the creek.”

Before he established the buffers, chunks of stream banks would slough off and fall into the creeks every year. Since the buffers became well-established, that's stopped.

Kennebeck says what many farmers fail to take into account about buffers is that once established, with cost-sharing help, there's very little cost involved compared with putting in a crop.

There are fringe benefits that are also important to Kennebeck. He likes to fish and enjoy Lake Panorama along with other area residents. And although he does not hunt, he gets a big kick out of watching the increased numbers of pheasants and other wildlife. “I'm really sold on the national buffer program, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat,” Kennebeck says. “It's a program I'd urge other farmers to take a hard look at.”

Just how effective can these various components of buffers be in protecting the environment?

Very, insist Dick Schultz and Tom Isenhart, riparian ecologists at Iowa State University (ISU). They have 10 years of research, available for review at www.buffer.forestry.istate.edu, to prove it.

“The bottom line of our research,” Schultz reports, “is that we find with buffers of the proper width, at least 50' or more on each side of a watercourse, we're getting over 90% reduction in surface runoff and sediment. And we're trapping over 80% of the nitrogen and phosphorus that is in that surface runoff water. Infiltration rates have increased five fold.”

Joe Frischmeyer, Glidden, IA, is equally enthusiastic about buffers. He established 28.6 acres of filter strips in '97 along a drainage ditch.

“It was an easy decision for me,” he says. “I've lost the whole crop in this area one out of every three years, and 80% of the time I lose about 10 acres. This is good ground, so I get a good rental rate, and I'm not putting $150 an acre at risk every year in planting costs.

“Wildlife needs cover, seclusion, food and water, and they're all here,” Frischmeyer notes. “We counted between 40 and 50 pheasants this past spring in this cover after a hard winter. We got a lot of local support for this project, too, including from Pheasants Forever.”

Frischmeyer is now exploring the possibility of restoring a wetland in this buffer strip area to use as a natural filter to cleanse effluent from his livestock operation before it gets into the stream.

“The local DNR representative made it clear that any farmer who feeds livestock anywhere near a watercourse is going to have to undergo extraordinary efforts to keep manure out of the creeks. If this restored wetland can be put into place, this is one way we can help ourselves and others downstream, too.”

According to Schnepf, Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota are the top three enrollment states (through Continuous CRP). Enrollment acreage is also picking up in many other states across the country.

“Nevertheless, buffers were and remain an underused technology,” Schnepf insists. “They can accomplish a lot of conservation goals. The beauty of this initiative is that it allows people who are still actively farming to take minimum amounts of environmentally sensitive land out of production and get paid for it.

“Also,” he adds, “it helps solve their conservation problems and enables them to be good stewards of the environment and good neighbors to their fellow citizens in rural America and people in urban areas downstream.”

There is one limitation to what buffers can do: On tiled land, runoff moves directly to watercourses without going through a buffer's filtering process.

However, ISU scientists are working on research to solve that problem with either restoring or creating manmade wetlands to filter out chemicals and nutrients before they enter a watercourse.