Hero Image

Ranch Planning and Conservation Monitoring

Options for Riparian Areas 

Michael Lennox, UCCE Ranch Planning & Conservation Monitoring Coordinator, October 2013

Decisions to preserve, conserve and restore sensitive locations on our ranches are not taken lightly. Efforts to maintain and improve riparian vegetation have provided valuable insights into the long-term recovery of streams and watersheds across the United States with over $2 billion spent in California since the 1980s. To learn from past projects, I battled the hemlock and blackberry thickets to survey and research restored streams (article). Riparian areas are the transitional area of land along waterways between dry and wet locations. They are very important for ranch productivity and watershed management. This article describes how monitoring of previous riparian restoration efforts helps to prioritize stewardship and conservation for your ranch so you have more tools to manage vegetation when you want alternatives.

We have learned that numerous options are viable to successfully improve or maintain riparian areas, depending on ranch location and specific management objectives (report). Our results highlight the importance of time for vegetation to establish and grow in order to evaluate restoration project success and long-term outcomes (article).

Stewardship Process
By looking back at project sites completed 20-40 years ago, we found that various conservation practices achieved desired restoration outcomes for erosion control, sedimentation, and habitat quality. The recovery of environmental benefits was often faster where more conservation practices were implemented. These expected results offer feedback for the conservation partnership to set more specific objectives. For example, how fast do you need vegetation to change at a site in order to improve water quality or riparian habitat?

In addition to environmental considerations are practical concerns about ranch operations and logistics to ensure time is not wasted and animals will be healthy for many years to come. Riparian restoration methods used with success on ranches were: control the timing and duration of riparian grazing by fencing riparian corridors within existing pastures, fence riparian areas to exclude livestock, change the kind and class of livestock, reduce duration of grazing, reduce grazing intensity and control season of use (report). We learned that completely removing livestock was not the best or only solution for every site. As a result, the “lock it up and throw away the key” approach is an oversimplification of our ecological reality – it assumes nature heals itself the way we want it to, but this is blind optimism (article).

The nexus of environmental and operational concerns on each ranch guides where to prioritize conservation, restoration and stewardship efforts. Experience and research has shown that restoration projects are more successful when landowners are vested and want it done (report). During the planning phase of projects, consider multiple options that would provide slow vs. fast revegetation trajectories and these are often cheap vs. more expensive approaches. In general, the more money spent on restoration, the greater the environmental benefits; however, this is not often a linear relationship – some conservation practices have a larger ‘bang for the buck’ depending on the site and management priorities. For example, installing water trough(s) improve water quality, as well as animal health, by reducing duration and intensity of grazing near the stream (fact sheet); however, at a site with headcuts where the channel is down cutting to cause bank erosion, more practices are included such as grade stabilization structure, control fencing and/or revegetation (publication).

Photo 1. Box elder and arroyo willow
Photo 1. Box elder and arroyo willow
Every ranch is different and the resulting combination of conservation practices implemented should be uniquely designed because there is no single ‘one size fits all’ prescription or magic ‘silver bullet’ to restoring watershed functions (article). Improving land management is as important as implementing site-specific projects and the two go hand-in-hand (fact sheet). In reality, the best approach to ensure environmental benefits from working ranches is an active management philosophy. Of practical importance for riparian areas is to plan if, and when, to reintroduce livestock grazing as a vegetation management tool in the restored forest? Our results showed an increase in plant diversity following restoration, but this often declined after 20-30 years without livestock grazing as herbaceous species were overgrown by blackberry or other shrubs (article).

Luckily, livestock grazing is compatible with riparian forests (publication) and certain trees are more resistant to disturbance than others. For example, taller tree species with upright growth, such as this 15-year-old box elder (Acer negundo), are able to compete with arroyo willow (small trees), need less maintenance, and use less water (photo 1). Other tall, canopy-forming tree species include Pacific willow (Salix lucida), Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii) and Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia). I recommend using multiple species that are appropriate for your site.

“Cattle tend to concentrate in a riparian area if (1) water is not well distributed, (2) the land near riparian water is steep or rocky (especially if all the water is riparian, (3) salt is placed in or near riparian areas, (4) the weather is hot and riparian shade is available, (5) non-riparian forage is less palatable than riparian forage, (6) the herd is composed of cows with calves as opposed to yearlings, (7) individual animals develop behavior patterns that favor riparian areas, (8) animal distribution is not maintained by herding, and/or (9) the grazing season is long.” Riparian Pasture Options (fact sheet 19)

Physchology of Change
Since no single conservation practice fixes all water quality, many options with numerous combinations of practices offer the greatest long-term benefit to water quality. If you feel hopeless, or there is only one option available to improve your stream and ranch water quality, take a step back to see what others have done and reconsider previous assumptions (report). Think about the successes and failures of others and rethink your history to keep options available and replace denial with hope towards planning future opportunities.


There have been many examples of spectacular conservation success, given the right set of circumstances and opportunities. This is where restoration comes to the fore, and provides the possibility of reversing past damage—in other words, turning loss into gain….The hope provided by restoration does, however, have to be realistic, and to be based on the reality of the situation. Blind optimism can lead to false promises,
wasted effort, and poor outcomes, particularly if expectations exceed capabilities….
This is hope with its sleeves rolled up – not as an emotional buffer against cold hard facts but as a stoic, clear-eyed and utilitarian alternative to apathy, inaction and despair…. 
Hope is not blind optimism; it recognizes the depth of the problem
and refuses to accept defeat. It is not a feeling – it is a choice

Grieving for the past, hoping for the future

Remember, the slow approach using incremental steps is a completely viable option. Evaluating the effectiveness of stewardship efforts is often a very rewarding process as lessons learned provide direction, pride and confidence. Please contact me for more information about monitoring or prioritizing your projects mlennox@ucdavis.edu 707.565.2621. 

An upland swale near Santa Rosa with young restored riparian habitat nine years after tree planting (box elder, ash, cottonwood, willow, oak), headcut repair and sediment/infiltration basins were completed. Lambs and ewes finished grazing during a dry spell in early spring (Photo 2) to optimize forage nutrition, avoid impacts to trees, control blackberry encroachment and reduce competition from invasive medusahead and harding grass. Regrowth less than a month later (Photo 3) indicates the productivity of riparian areas and their importance to sustaining healthy animals on this ranch. 

Photo 2
Photo 2
Photo 3
Photo 3