What is a Riparian Forest?

Mary McMahon

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.

Riperian forests play an important ecological role.
Riperian forests play an important ecological role.

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.

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Discussion Comments


Are there any riparian laws that help to protect local water systems? I know that factories and other companies can't dump waste into rivers and streams, but what about for regular people?

Are there any laws about not being able to cut down trees next to waterways? I'm also wondering whether there is anything else we can do that will help protect our water resources, since they are extremely important for our survival.


@JimmyT - I had a similar problem when I moved onto my property. We had part of a river that bordered the land, and for some reason the bank started to get washed away, and a lot of the trees ended up dying or falling into the river.

We got hold of a local forestry service, and a forester was able to help us out. If you are concerned about your stream, I would suggest going that route. He was extremely helpful and did the work for us. We now have a beautiful riparian area with lots of native bird species.

We live in Indiana, so I would guess that a lot of the trees would be the same. I believe our forester planted some ashes, maples, and cottonwoods (by my request). I love the way cottonwoods look.

If you wanted to try to do the work yourself, I would recommend looking into those trees. I know in Indiana we have a state tree nursery. I'm not sure about Illinois, though.


@TreeMan - That sounds like a great project. My county does something similar with restoring native prairies.

I have a stream that runs through my property, and I have noticed over the last couple years that the bank is starting to erode a little bit each year. Is there something that I should do to stop this? Are there certain kinds of trees I can plant? If that's the case, I'm not even sure where to buy trees.

If it helps, I live in central Illinois.


I have a great story about restoring a riparian area. About 15 years ago, my city put together a volunteer project where a few hundred people got together and helped to plant trees along a local river that had been very poorly managed in the past. There were hardly any trees along the bank, and most of the fish had died off. We got rid of a lot of the non-native species, and planted the trees that should have been there.

I went back to the river a few years ago, and the change has been remarkable. The trees are growing a lot faster than I thought they would, and there are actually fish in the river now!

I think it is amazing how we could protect our resources if we just tried harder.

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