A riparian forest is a stand of trees or a forest which is located next to a body of water. Technically, the term “riparian” refers to flowing bodies of water like creeks, streams, and rivers, but people refer to forested areas around standing water like lakes and reservoirs as riparian forests as well. Riparian forest plays a very important ecological role and is a topic of interest among biologists all over the world in addition to conservationists and representatives of government agencies concerned with environmental health.
In nature, riparian forests are very common. Trees and plants are drawn to river banks because of the steady supply of water and nutrient-rich sediment. Often these areas have very high biodiversity, because they support a broad spectrum of plant and animal species. In fact, the tendency of certain tree species to only grow around water was utilized by early explorers in the American West as they attempted to identify water supplies in sometimes bleak landscapes.
A riparian forest can also be planted by humans for a specific purpose. Some ecological organizations and government agencies are interested in establishing riparian forest buffers which include trees and plants which are introduced. Native species may be used, especially for conservation projects, depending on the setting. The goal of the buffer is to confer the benefits of a natural riparian forest, potentially to replace vegetation which has been removed, and, sometimes, to help control pollution.
Trees stabilize river banks with their network of roots, reducing soil loss due to erosion and controlling sediment as a result. In addition, a riparian forest provides habitat for animals, as well as an environment which may be more hospitable to some plant species. The forest can help to trap and control non-point pollution, to keep overall temperatures within a comfortable range, and to reduce water loss through evaporation. Vegetation near bodies of water also helps with flood control, reducing the risk of flood damage in low-lying areas which may be located in close proximity to the water.
Riparian restoration often involves planting trees to create a riparian forest for the purpose of promoting biodiversity in the area. Vegetation can also help restore the natural environment in areas which have been damaged by human activity. Establishing riparian forest may also be a project which excites human members of the community, as people often enjoy looking at forests and using forested areas for recreation.