Riparian zones are incredibly important, especially in the Western United States. These reservoirs of biodiversity and moisture feed the oft-arid ecosystems of the West. I was recently in Boise for work and took the time to hike along the Boise River backwaters for a bit one frosty morning. Broad brown crispy cottonwood leaves littered the floor of the floodplain. Red-headed mergansers dove for their breakfast in the cold murky water while flickers and Canada geese made their presence known.
This place is one of numerous cottonwood or stringer creeks. In the dry West creeks, streams, and rivers are quickly recognized from the air or from a great distance by the tall trees lining both sides of the water body. In a place where most moisture falls as snow and most land only retains water for brief period of time, these strings of life are critical.
Cottonwoods are considered such a critical component in riparian ecosystems in North America a team of scientists throughout the country have teamed up to form the Cottonwood Ecology Group. This group, based out of Northern Arizona University, studies the connection between cottonwood genetics and the ecosystems they support.