1. To evaluate the spatial extent of the effects of forest cover on stream ecosystems, we measured algae, invertebrate, and fish biomass and invertebrate and fish community structure in 38 small first- to third-order streams in the National Capital Region of Canada along with forest cover at different spatial scales.
2. We considered 55 spatial scales of forest cover including several buffer widths (doubling 10–320 m) and lengths (doubling 10–1280 m, entire riparian distance upstream from sampling area) and entire catchments to determine which spatial scale maximized the correlation with biomass and metrics of community structure.
3. The proportion of variability in biomass and structural metrics explained by forest cover generally increased with increasing scale, suggesting that catchment-wide disturbances are the most influential determinants of benthic and fish communities.
4. Catchment forest cover explained more variation in algal (adjusted r2 = 0.54), invertebrate (adjusted r2 = 0.51) and fish (adjusted r2 = 0.33) biomass than structural metrics of invertebrates and fish (adjusted r2 = 0.08–0.27).
5. Analyses of the partial effects of forest cover at three scales (reach, riparian and the entire catchment) on biomass and community structure metrics identified catchment and reach scales as being most influential and never detected a significant partial effect of forest cover at the riparian scale.
6. These results suggest that maintenance or protection of reach and riparian buffers alone will not sufficiently protect stream function and structure from catchment-wide impacts.