Prior to the 1800s´ flood of immigrants – which included two dozen-plus displaced Indian tribes and then waves of European settlers - the corridors along Kansas´s creeks and rivers had a diversity of trees and shrubs.
By 1900, those riparian forests were decimated. Today, that´s still causing problems, said Joshua Pease, who coordinates the Kansas Forest Service´s annual Conservation Tree Planting Program.
Back when the U.S. Frontier Army was building a line of forts along the edge of the Louisiana Purchase, rainfall made finding timber easy in what would soon become eastern Kansas. Even western Kansas had forests to lose that sometimes were miles wide along the major rivers.
"Their loss in the years following was more than just the trees, though," Pease said.
The forests had stabilized the riverbanks, he explained. They also had stabilized the soil throughout the floodplain acreage that bordered the riparian zones.
"The result was clean water that was actually clear, excellent wildlife habitat, and a diversely balanced ecosystem," the forester said.
Now most of the state´s floodplains and stripped forest lands are supporting communities and crop farms. So, they´re wide open for devastating flooding, Pease said. In turn, the adjoining water is registering an array of pollutants, often caused by unchecked, unfiltered runoff. Wildlife is under threat, too. The entire ecosystem is neither diverse nor in balance.
"That´s why planting riparian buffer strips has become incredibly important," he said. "As just one example: A study conducted by Kansas State University Research and Extension after the floods of 1993 clearly showed that farmland with shrubs and trees planted along its waterways suffered far less impact than those with no riparian strip.
"Farms without permanent plantings lost tons of topsoil. They had little to no protection from the flood´s farm- and home-damaging water, silt and debris. Some are still trying to repair the aftermath."
Grass filter strips alone can reduce topsoil erosion, Pease said. They do very little, however, to slow down flood water and thus limit the amount of silt deposits, dumped debris and water-force damage. "It only makes sense. Grass will slow water if that water runs through it. If the water is fast or deep, though, it will simply push the grass over and run on top of it - as easily as water runs over concrete," the forester said.
In contrast, trees and shrubs are much harder to push over. They create twists and turns that flood water must slow down to work through. Woody plants also operate like a strainer for larger flood debris. As they slow water down, they become increasingly able to filter out smaller pollutants, too, Pease said.
"Even landowners with small acreages can help to re-establish this kind of natural balance. Together, they could have a big impact on our waterways," he said.
Pease said the Conservation Tree Planting Program that he coordinates can help, as well. Each year it offers low-cost seedlings of Kansas-proven trees and shrubs.
"We have lots of different species that can be useful in establishing new riparian filter strips or improve existing ones," he said.
The seedling order forms for spring 2008 are already available at all district Kansas Forest Service offices and local National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS). They´re also on hand at every county´s Conservation District office and K-State Research and Extension office.
Kansans also can place orders by calling 888-740-8733 or by visiting the Kansas Forest Service´s Web site at www.kansasforests.org.