In many ways, riparian buffers define our paddling experiences. Likewise, they define the river ecosystem and how rivers interact with the landscape. In many parts of the country the word “buffers” instantly strikes fear into those concerned with private property rights and any potential limitations on those rights. Riparian buffers may be political hot potatoes but there are some very good reasons why paddlers should support the protection and restoration of riparian areas. It is important to remember that buffers are not a political statement, they are an ecological necessity.
Riparian areas are simply the land adjacent to rivers and streams. These areas typically foster vegetation that is specifically adapted to living in the dynamic conditions associated with living next to a river. Thus, these species are adapted to being regularly flooded, scoured, fragmented, buried, dried up, washed downstream and otherwise abused. In order to survive, many of these plants have developed deep fibrous root masses that both hold the vegetation in place and also hold the stream-banks in place. It is primarily because this characteristic of riparian vegetation, that maintaining riparian buffers is so important. This vegetation with its deep binding root masses both protects the river from things happening on land, and protects the land from the erosive forces of the river. The following is just a subset of the ways in which maintaining riparian buffers enhances the paddling experience, the river ecosystem, and the relationship between rivers and people.
When buffers are removed through timber harvest practices, landscaping, urban development, agricultural clearing, over grazing, or by any other means, these many benefits to paddlers and rivers are lost. Without a healthy riparian buffer, our rivers become muddy ditches, lifeless and dysfunctional. The intricate ecological web of the river unravels, and will not be restored until the riparian vegetation itself is restored. This is exactly why there is so much interest in riparian restoration and protecting riparian buffers.
As you are out there driving around, paddling, and best of all - flying, take notice of the state of our rivers' riparian areas. You will notice that many whitewater rivers have boulder and bedrock banks and may have a fairly intact riparian area, while lower gradient rivers that have soil and gravel banks and extensive floodplains are more likely to be heavily impacted. This pattern of development is fairly common because floodplains are flat and therefore easier to build on, graze on, and plant agricultural products on than upland slopes. Much of the work that needs to be done on riparian areas is in these lower gradient stream reaches, but do not think that you are off the hook since you are primarily a whitewater paddler. Rivers are continuums. Almost all whitewater rivers have low gradient reaches upstream and downstream of them in need of help, and many of the whitewater sections themselves have small areas in need of help.
So What Can You Do?
Hopefully, if you did not already, you now realize that riparian buffers are critical for the health of the rivers we enjoy. Surely then you are asking yourself, “OK that is all well and good, but what the heck can I do about it!?” Well, don't despair, there are a few really simple things that every paddler can do to help protect and restore riparian areas.
Riparian areas are beautiful and integral parts of ecosystems and are embarrassingly easy to protect and restore, once the decision is made to do so. We encourage paddlers to take advantage of this great opportunity to have a positive influence on rivers.
Additional Information on Riparian Buffers