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What Is a Riparian Area

NRCS defines riparian areas as ecosystems that occur along watercourses or water bodies. They are different from surrounding lands because of unique soil and plant characteristics that are strongly influenced by free or unbound water in the soil. Riparian ecosystems occupy the transitional area between the terrestrial (dry) and aquatic (wet) ecosystems. Typical examples would include floodplains, streambanks, lakeshores, and wetlands. Riparian areas may exist within any land use area, such as cropland, hayland, pastureland, rangeland, and forestland.

Although riparian areas constitute only a fraction of the total land area of Montana, they are generally more productive in terms of plant and animal species, diversity and biomass than adjacent uplands. It is important to recognize that not all riparian areas have the same potential or react to management in the same way. Therefore, they should be managed according to their unique characteristics.

The importance of riparian areas is mostly due to their spatial relationship to the landscape. Most riparian features are relatively long and narrow in relation to other landscape features. This spatial relationship provides a great many transition zones. The transition zones are the points at which dry and wet ecosystems interface and are the sites of important exchanges of material and energy in the landscape.

Federal law does not specifically regulate riparian areas. However, portions of riparian areas, such as wetlands and other waters of the U.S., may be subject to federal regulation under provisions of The Food Security Act, The Clean Water Act, The National Environmental Policy Act and state and local legislation.

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