More than 70 percent of this country's natural streams and waterways have been completely lost from misuse and overuse, said the Utah State University director of the Watershed Science Unit.
"Riparian areas are an exploited natural resource," said Charles Hawkins. "We use them to the extent that they can no longer provide what is expected of them."Speaking to more than 125 gathered at USU's Eccles Center Thursday, Hawkins gave the keynote address kicking off a two-day symposium focusing on management of riparian areas.
Riparian areas, by nature, are simply being loved to death, he said. The challenge of the 1990s will be for those who work in riparian-related fields to expand public understanding of the functions and limitations of these fragile ecosystems.
In addition, he said there is an urgent need to immediately begin prioritizing riparian areas that need protection or restoration. Once identified and protected, he said, they must be managed for sustainable use.
Hawkins said a riparian ecosystem is "easy when you see it, but difficult to define." In general terms, it is any natural stream or waterway that is greener, or more productive, than the area that surrounds it.
Where there is such an ecosystem in place, he said there are more nesting birds and greater wildlife diversity to be found.
"Riparian systems promote three times the species that upland areas produce," he said.
In addition to fish and wildlife, riparian ecosystems provide rich areas for farming, grazing, timber production and recreation. This is why such areas are so widely valued and often overused, he said.
Of the 300 million acres of public land in the United States, only 2 million acres consist of riparian ecosystems, he said.
Over the past 200 years, Hawkins said, 70 percent of this limited resource "has been lost for better or worse" to U.S. industrialization.
He said this multiple use has resulted in major alterations of riparian areas through stream channelization, construction of flood control structures, and modifications for livestock, agriculture, timber, water harvesting, and urbanization and development.
"To solve problems of multiple use, we all have to work together to come up with some solutions," he said.