Why are Riparian Areas Important?
Riparian areas are the narrow strips of land adjacent to streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, and wetlands. They are characterized by plant species that are adapted to a wetter environment than plant species that dominate drier, upland environments. In arid and semi-arid climates, such as Wyoming, riparian areas can usually be clearly distinguished as the green areas adjacent to streams, rivers, and lakes.
While riparian areas comprise only a very small portion of the land area in the state, they are an extremely important component of healthy watersheds and ecological function. Riparian areas provide critical habitat for wildlife. Relating to water quality, the ecological benefits of riparian areas are numerous. By acting as buffers between upland areas and open water, they help filter pollutants such as nutrients and sediment. Healthy riparian vegetation helps to reduce stream bank erosion and maintain stable stream channel geomorphology. Vegetation also provides shade, which works to lower water temperatures. Lower water temperatures support higher dissolved oxygen levels which are important to maintain fisheries.
Many land-uses have the potential to negatively affect riparian areas. Urban development, improper grazing practices, improper timber harvesting practices, and over-use from recreational activities are just a few examples. Consequently, there are areas in Wyoming where a functional, healthy riparian zone no longer exists. Streams that were once lined with willows or other riparian species may now only be lined with limited grass or sedges that are not capable of stabilizing stream banks.
Many local organizations, agencies, and landowners across Wyoming have worked to implement best management practices to restore or protect riparian areas, but many areas remain that need restoration or protection measures. Activities such as proper grazing management , proper timber harvesting practices, proper planning of urban development, and establishing “no-mow” zones in urban parks all work to protect riparian areas. Restoring degraded riparian areas may involve a wide variety of best management practices, including planting native species to re-vegetate the area, using natural materials to stabilize stream banks, and reshaping stream channels to restore stable geomorphology.
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