PA: Connecting Schools with Riparian Forest Buffers

Article by Julianne Nikirk, USDA Forest Service
Alliance at Messiah University. Students utilize an “assembly line” approach while following COVID-19 precautions, 2020. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Lauver

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay is a 50 year old non-profit dedicated to the conservation and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This means the programs target areas not only in the bay itself, but streams, rivers, and rainfall that drain to the bay are all considered. This holistic way of approaching conservation has allowed for the outstanding accomplishments of having planted over a million trees. Community members of all ages have the opportunity to become involved in this legacy of environmental stewardship. This rings true for the elementary, high school, and college campus students that have been able to utilize the Alliance’s program resources to get outside, plant native trees, and learn about environmental stewardship in Pennsylvania. Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s own Rebecca Lauver participated in plantings in college before joining the Alliance as an employee.

“It has been really neat to first partner with the Alliance as a student at a university and then to join the Alliance team as an employee; being on both sides of the process has helped to me to get a better idea of what meaningful partnerships between environmental organizations and schools can look like. There is such a great potential for education and collaboration when both entities have the goal of restoring the local landscape.” – Rebecca Lauver, Pennsylvania Forests Projects Associate and Messiah University Alumni

When speaking with Ryan Davis, the Pennsylvania Forests Projects Managers for the Alliance, he described the importance and practicality of including college campuses: 

“Most colleges have sustainability goals and many have sustainability coordinators, so there is often a built-in support system to work with on the inside of the institution. There’s also usually a robust group of students who organize around environmentalism and relish the chance to plant trees. Partnering with higher education is important to growing stewards as well, but in a different way than how we influence grade school children. Engaged college students are generally quite focused on their post-graduate career options, and exposing them to the world of ecological restoration while they’re still in school may mean that they explore that career path.

I feel that we need many more professionals in this field who are trained, skilled and experienced in actual restoration, so creating this possible pathway for college students is an important way we try to build towards future progress. Working with colleges is also beneficial for my organization; we’ve had some excellent interns come out of relationships with college sustainability offices, including Rebecca herself!” – Ryan Davis, Pennsylvania Forests Projects Manager

Shallowbrook Elementary School. Ryan Davis (in the orange shirt facing away from the camera) teaching some York County Master Watershed Stewards about how to take care of the riparian forest buffer planted in 2019. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Lauver.

Among the many Pennsylvania programs associated with Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, two are specifically utilized for elementary, high school, and college campus lands. These are the Riparian Forest Buffer and Pennsylvania Lawn Conversion program. The Riparian Forest Buffer program is a fully-funded (plus three years of maintenance) process that plants native saplings in riparian zones to benefit the watershed and ecosystem. The Pennsylvania Lawn Conversion program takes pieces of mowed or manicured lawn that is over half an acre and converts it to either a native forest or meadow. Students are able and encouraged to participate in plantings and educational opportunities surrounding tree care and maintenance. In some cases, students have been able to tie in lessons about experimentation, the scientific method, and math lessons. It is also a great way to get kids outside and spark curiosity for the natural world. All while making the land more ecofriendly, educational, and less expensive to maintain in the long run. To date, the Alliance has planted 27.14 acres of forest on school grounds in Pennsylvania since spring of 2019. Total, 99 acres are planned for Fall 2021 and ~70 acres are planned for Spring 2021 so far. The Alliance was awarded funds from the U.S. Forest Service for 39 additional acres on public land, 5 of which have already been allocated to school grounds. To learn more, visit: