U.S. Department of Agriculture: Forest Service -- National Agroforestry Center


Date of this Version

September 2004


Reprinted from the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation Volume 59, Number 5.


While some argue that the Great Plains were dominated by grasslands and that riparian woodlands were rare, others contend that trees would logically have occurred in riparian areas due to favorable microenvironment conditions. Historically, what native plant communities were found in riparian zones of the Great Plains? The answers to this question depend to a large extent on what time period is used as a reference of pre-settlement conditions.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1981) drew upon conditions in 1905 for insight and concluded that trees were “wholly absent” or consisted of scattered cottonwood and willow. However, such a view rests on a flawed and incomplete reading of the record. Indeed, by 1900 most riparian zones in the Great Plains had long since been depleted of their natural woody vegetation component.

However, abundant historical evidence from the 1800’s supports a very different picture, with different ecological implications. In fact, to tell the story of this land we need to begin a long, long, time ago. . .prior to the construction of the transcontinental railroad spur lines in the 1860’s; before the 1859 Denver gold rush; and before the Great Westward Movement of the 1840’s along the Oregon Trail (Ambrose, 2000; West, 1998). These defining events drew many people into and through the Great Plains on their way to seek their fortunes and build their futures.

This, then, is a story of the Great Plains and how riparian areas along major rivers and their tributaries were once significantly forested. They came under great pressure beginning in the mid 1800’s from the simultaneous and cumulative impact of Indians, gold seekers, soldiers, railroad crews, and settlers who all played important roles in determining the way riparian areas look today.