INTERVIEW with Brian Riley, Watershed & Service Forester, Division of Forestry
What do you do to support sustainable development in Ohio?
I am a watershed forester in the western Lake Erie basin. A map of the basin is shown at the left. My job is to show people in this region how to manage woodlands along streams and rivers.
We refer to these areas as riparian corridors, or riparian forests when they include a large area of woodland.
Well-managed woodlands in riparian corridors conserve soil and reduce and purify water runoff. For example, a well-managed, healthy woodland in Northwest Ohio can filter out more than 90 percent of the sediment and pollutants from water runoff that eventually ends up in Lake Erie.
Can you describe a riparian forest?
A riparian forest is a large woodland area that includes a biologically diverse ecosystem adjacent to a body of water such as a river, stream, pond, lake, marsh or canal. Some of the largest and oldest trees in Ohio grow in riparian woodlands, as for example the cottonwood in the photo.
Riparian forests are usually subjected to periodic flooding following heavy rains. In areas where riparian forests have been cleared, primarily for agricultural or development purposes, there are no trees present to stabilize the loose soil with their extensive root system.
This allows soil to be picked up by the rain and deposited into the nearest body of water. This has resulted in more frequent flooding than ever before. As more soil enters our waterways, they become shallower, thus reducing the amount of water they can hold without spilling over.
How do riparian forests and woodlands purify water?
Forests and woodlands purify water in many ways. Trees, through their roots, absorb fertilizers and other pollutants and store them in their leaves, limbs and root systems. This keeps pollutants from being released into waterways. Forest floors contain leaf litter that filters out phosphorous from sediment particles. Forest floors also contain bacteria that convert harmful nitrates into nitrogen gas, which is harmlessly released back into the air in a process called denitrification.
Trees have other aquatic value also. They preserve habitat for many species of fish and invertebrates by providing shade. In addition, leaves that fall into waterways provide food and habitat for small bottom-dwelling creatures including crustaceans, amphibians, insects and small fish.
The ability of trees to provide these benefits depends on the overall growth rate and health of the woodland. In the photo, I am in a riparian corridor using a diameter tape, or D-tape for short, to monitor how fast the trees in this stand are growing and to gauge their overall health.
What is most challenging about your job?
Educating landowners to realize the benefit to growing trees on their property, especially near streams to establish riparian corridors. Many landowners in Northwestern Ohio who have been grain farming for generations are reluctant to plant trees on even a small portion of their property, because they do not fully understand how trees can profit them both economically and ecologically.