, Volume 19, Issue 4, pp 547-557

Restoration of riparian forest using irrigation, artificial disturbance, and natural seedfall

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In interior western North America, many riparian forests dominated by cottonwood and willow are failing to reproduce downstream of dams. We tested the hypothesis that establishment is now prevented by absence of the bare, moist substrate formerly provided by floods and channel movement. Along Boulder Creek, a dammed stream in the Colorado plains, we tested the effects of disturbance (sod removal), irrigation, and addition of seed on the establishment of seedings of plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides subsp.monilifera) and peachleaf willow (Salix amygdaloides). In unirrigated, undisturbed plots, mean cottonwood density was 0.03 seedlings/m2. Irrigation or disturbance alone produced mean cottonwood densities of 0.39 and 0.75 seedlings/m2. Plots that were both irrigated and disturbed produced a mean cottonwood density of 10.3 seedlings/m2. The effects of irrigation and disturbance on cottonwood establishment were significant (P<0.005); added seed had no significant effect (P=0.78). The few cottonwood seedlings in unirrigated plots were in low positions susceptible to scour by future moderate flows. We conclude that cottonwood establishment along Boulder Creek is limited by the scarcity of bare, moist sites safe from future scour. Establishment of peachleaf willow was significantly affected only by disturbance; daily sprinkler irrigation did not provide sufficient moisture to increase survival of this species. Our results demonstrate the feasibility of restoring plains cottonwood forests using natural seedfall, even where only widely scattered adult trees are present. Because use of natural seedfall conserves the genetic makeup of the local population, this method may be preferable to the use of imported cuttings.