An Especially Important Zone
By Tom Koehler
An incredibly unique area of our eco-system provides tremendous outsized positive impact. A riparian zone is land along waterways including floodplains and stream banks such, as those along the Lower Blue River. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), riparian zones comprise only 1% of land in the western US but are among our most productive and valuable natural resources.
This dynamic area filters pollutants and helps control erosion so unwanted sediment is not sent downstream. Our drinking water supply is naturally aided by this wonder of nature. Riparian zones possess distinct soil and vegetation characteristics from upland zones. Ground water is nearer the surface and promotes robust vegetation and is typically nutrient rich.
The lush vegetation helps to cool the water for aquatic life and lower the amount lost to evaporation which is particularly important in the arid west.
Deer, elk, beavers, and other magnificent creatures depend on healthy riparian zones for existence. The USDA finds most of western wildlife is supported by riparian zones. There is competition though, as it is estimated 80% of recreation occurs within 75 yards of waterways.
In the Dillon Ranger District that encompasses Summit County, we have approximately four million recreational visits annually. The policy implications are enormous.
The beauty of the streambank entices many to explore and unintentionally disrupt this vital area of our eco-system. Leave no trace programs should be enhanced particularly in areas and towns that host visitors who may not have a strong ethos for land and water.
This can be formulated and rolled out with collaboration across municipalities and stewardship groups, like FOLBR, to get the message out for the health of our water and wildlife.
Considering this county has over 400 miles of trails, there is a lot of potential for riparian zone and stream denigration. It should merit high priority analysis and focus within larger watershed projects and studies through state and local agencies.
With strong private/public partnerships, capital can flow to scale trail and stream bank restoration to enhance our natural resources. A better environment yields better wildlife. This helps promote our recreation economy. As hunters and anglers find healthy, quality wildlife, they contribute to our area’s income.
There can also be seasonal employment creation with larger scale eco-restoration facilitating a new economic engine in these uncertain times.
Next time you are on a hike, take the time to observe the beauty and power of the riparian zone and commit over time to help take care of our natural wonders.