Spotlight on Riparian Forests

FOREST BUFFERS or RIPARIAN BUFFERS are vegetative areas along a body of water containing a complex assemblage of vegetation, typical of a riparian system. Riparian buffers on your property are important because they:

1. Filter surface and subsurface water flow, while the roots of taller vegetation trap and transform pollutants and nutrients.

2. Trap soil runoff from upland areas, reducing the amount of sedimentation occurrence in surface waters.

3. Provide habitat and corridors for wildlife.

4. Stabilize the stream bank by protecting it from erosion.

5. Shade streams and encourage fish habitat and other desirable aquatic life.

6. Reduce the effects of both flooding and droughts.

If you like to fish, swim or boat then you’re likely familiar with riparian forests. They are life on the edge, literally, the edge where the forest meets the water's bank. They can occur next to almost any waterbody- rivers, streams, lakes, reservoirs, springs, bogs, ponds and seeps. Riparian forests are a combination of water, food and forest cover that create habitat for abundant plant and animal life. There are many species of plants and animals which can only survive in riparian areas.

Riparian forests are also key to water quality, regulating water flow and offsetting the harmful effects of drought and flood conditions. In Kentucky, these forests are populated with tulip poplar, sycamore and river birch towering above willow, paw paw, dogwood, ferns and flowers like the Virginia bluebell. These plants and the surrounding soils act like a giant sponge to regulate water flow and filter sediment, pollutants and other debris.

Riparian forests only make up a small fraction (< 5%) of the watershed, but contribute incredible benefits. They are also at great risk from forestry activities. In most cases the best way to manage a riparian forest is to leave it alone. If you’re concerned about wildlife habitat and clean water, your best bet is to keep all harvesting activities and equipment out of that area. Allow these areas to remain wild, including dead trees and branches. As these snags lose their bark and begin to decay, they will continue to provide food and shelter for resident and migratory wildlife.


The tree canopy and understory brush of this riparian forest help to shade the stream and naturally regulate its temperature. This is critical for many aquatic species to survive. In fact, scientists look for certain types of crayfish, mussels, salamanders and fish as indicators of water quality. To learn more about Kentucky’s rare, threatened and monitored species, visit


































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