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Protecting riparian areas

One of the most important aspects of land management is protecting and enhancing the riparian areas of your property. Riparian areas are those areas/ecosystems which are adjacent to and dependent on water bodies such as lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, springs, and wetlands. These areas are characterized by higher water tables and wetter soils which play host to water-loving tree species such as alder, willow, cottonwood, cedar and spruce, as well as a host of unique plants such as shrubs and herbaceous species. The riparian areas are extremely important to wildlife, fish and the health/purity of the water body which the riparian area is associated with. As a land manager it is imperative to protect these areas from being degraded or if they have already been degraded, to re-establish a healthy riparian area along the edges of whatever water body you may have on the land you manage.

One reason for the importance of the riparian zone is due to the “Edge Effect.” One of the most productive areas in any ecosystem is an edge. The “Edge Effect” is produced when two or more eco-types come together, say a pasture or meadow and a forest of trees. The pasture/meadow provides habitat needs for certain wildlife and the forest provides certain habitat needs for other wildlife species. The area where these two eco-types meet effectively doubles both the plant species and the wildlife productivity as well as creating a unique corridor area where animals of both habitat types tend to move along. In a riparian area there are actually three eco-types coming together, such as a forest of trees, the riparian zone and then the water body, too. So riparian zones tend to be just about the most diverse and productive areas of any ecosystem.

There are many other important roles which the riparian area performs. The riparian zone acts as a filter which traps sediments. Its thick vegetation and mat of decomposing plant material acts like a filter, so sediments, pollutants and other forest debris are trapped, unable to enter the water body. It also is a sponge which controls water flow. Riparian soils collect and hold water, which gradually leaks out into the water body, replenishing it over the dry summer months. The filter and sponge of the riparian area have a direct effect on the amount and quality of water supplied by the land. Fisheries, domestic water users and downstream irrigators benefit from healthy riparian areas.

In addition, plants growing in the riparian area protect the banks and hold them together. A bank knit together with deep, dense roots and fallen logs is less likely to erode during spring runoff and floods than a barren one. Damage to the riparian area can destroy the sponge, ruin the filter, erode the banks and result in deterioration of the water quality. Other consequences are increased filtering costs for drinking water, damaged irrigation systems, increased flood potential, reduced wildlife habitat and property loss.

When performing any land management or even recreational activities, riparian areas should be protected and use of them minimized. First and foremost vehicles should not be driven in riparian areas; this includes recreational vehicles such as 4 wheelers, timber harvest equipment, pickups, etc. It is important not to build roads in or along riparian zones. Of course, sometimes a road must cross a riparian area but the road should be constructed in such a manner as to minimize any impact to the water body and associated riparian area, by staying out of it as long as possible and then quickly entering, crossing and exiting the same. The road should be planned so that crossing the water body and intrusion into the riparian area is at a place where minimum impact would be caused. Usually this would be a place where the water body is most narrow and the banks most stable. There are many techniques which can be employed to minimize the amount of sediment entering the water body when creating a road crossing, so please make sure to investigate these or make sure your road builder goes to the trouble of employing these techniques.

When harvesting timber, set up a protective Riparian Protection Zone around any water bodies, including wetlands. The area should be at least 50 feet away from the high water mark or from wet soils. It is best to put up flagging along this boundary so that the equipment operators will know not to go beyond that point with their vehicles. Maintaining shade to moderate water temperature is imperative, so timber harvest in the riparian zone should be avoided. If timber is to be harvested in the riparian zone, harvest should be limited to no more than about 30 percent. The trees which are harvested should come from the areas farthest away from the water and absolutely no trees with their roots actually extending into the water or branches extending over the water should be cut. Trees which are leaning into the direction of the water body should not be cut, so that they will not fall into the water or riparian area and have to be dragged out, thus damaging vegetation and adding branches, etc into the water.

Cattle, including horses, should not be allowed to graze on riparian plants and trample the riparian area to get water. Riparian areas should be fenced off to prevent damage by livestock. If the water body on the land you manage is an important water source, it would be best to limit the livestock access to the water source to one small area large enough for the livestock to drink from but not walk into the water, so as to minimize manure going into the water. The point where the livestock access the water should be protected with rock, gravel or sand to prevent the area from turning into a mud bog. If and when this water access point shows extensive erosion and is contributing sediment to the water body, it should be moved to another location and the old location be remediated quickly by replanting grass, and riparian plants.

Of course when recreating or creating recreation areas, camping should not be done within the riparian zone, and access points for water gathering, entrance into the water or boat launching should be protected from erosion also. It is best to have one established point of entry into the water and a designated trail into the riparian area which is maintained and protected from erosion. Keep human and animal waste out of the riparian area and out of the water. Make sure to keep litter out of the area and discourage or prevent people/kids from cutting or hacking into riparian trees and plants.

If the riparian areas on the land you manage are already degraded by logging, grazing or recreational use consider restoring the riparian zone. In most cases just preventing the damage can be enough and over time the riparian area will regenerate itself. But it can be a good idea to stabilize the banks and replant the riparian zone. Taking cuttings from willows and digging up small alder where it is thick and replanting them in areas lacking vegetation is a cheap way to accomplish this.  Reseeding with wildlife seed mixes and placing large rocks or logs in certain spots can also do a lot of good but research and professional guidance will probably be needed to accomplish this. Your local state extension Forester will be glad to assist in this, and many areas have local Watershed Restoration Councils which may contribute funds and technical assistance. Feel free to contact me if you would like for further information or direction.

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Author info

Michael White Michael White is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker - Sterling Society and a consultant for Northwest Group In-Land. He has a BS in Forest Resources & Ecosystem Management and specializes in land, ranches and homes with acreage.

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