- The lower Columbia River (LCR) riparian zone is rich in habitat diversity. However, the natural beauty and species diversity along the river have increasingly become affected by human activity. This study quantifies the areal extent and degree of wetlands change and associated causes along the LCR over the past 44 years. This research examines the distribution of wetland types and their patterns of change, developing regional models which rank areas most conducive to potential wetland recovery or restoration efforts. The length of the study area totals 234 river kilometers, from the mouth of the
Columbia River to Bonneville Dam. The width includes the active channel and an
approximately three-kilometer swath on either side of the river. Aerial photography was the primary means for interpreting historical extent of wetlands, using five photo dates (1948, 1961, 1973, 1983, and 1991), based upon their time interval, coverage, and photo quality. For each photo throughout the entire study site, land uses and wetland habitats greater than one hectare were identified and classified. Each classified polygon was digitized and spatially analyzed using a Geographic Information System. This study indicates that wetland habitats which were once contiguously draped upon the linear features of the river are decreasing in size and becoming fragmented. There have been both increases and decreases in specific wetland habitat areas which vary by river reach, even though wetlands have diminished overall. The
estuarine section of the LCR experienced a 25% net decrease in wetland area between 1948 and 1991, while the riverine tidal section fostered a 1% increase. The riverine lower perennial section sustained the greatest loss of wetlands, which decreased by 37%. Causes for wetland losses in the estuarine section were largely related to in-water activities, such as channelization, while the causes for declines in the riverine lower perennial section were correlated with rapid urbanization. Wetland increases in the riverine tidal section were generally influenced by significant growth in palustrine and forested wetlands associated with the establishment of wildlife refuges and the incremental increase of upstream flood storage capacity. This research provides a template for identifying degraded or displaced wetlands. Through the use of a GIS, each historical wetland was ranked in either low, moderate, or high categories for restoration potential. GIS technology permits focused, sequentially-refined queries to identify potential restoration or recovery sites. In the estuarine section, 74 historical wetland sites were ranked high for restoration potential, while in the riverine tidal and riverine lower perennial sections, there were 178 and 105, respectively. Overall, these sites represent only 25% of the area occupied by wetlands in 1948. While this study advocates restoration potential,
restoration is not a surrogate for responsible ecosystem-wide stewardship of the
riparian zone. Restoration will not succeed unless degrading factors are mitigated or
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