Regional Ecological Resource Assessment of the Rio Grande Riparian Corridor: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Understanding Anthropogenic Effects on Riparian Communities in Semiarid Environments

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Riparian ecosystems of the southwestern United States are among the most productive ecosystems of North America. The rapid decline of these ecosystems throughout the United States, including the Lower Rio Grande Valley, has made riparian conservation a focal issue. This multidisciplinary study of riparian communities along the Lower Rio Grande of Texas and Mexico had several objectives, including (1) acquiring and analyzing high-resolution, remotely sensed data from multiple sensors; (2) integrating existing and new field data and remotely sensed data into a geographic information system (GIS); (3) ascertaining whether the native vegetation communities are maintaining themselves and identifying the topographic, edaphic, and other ecological factors that perpetuate these communities; (4) interpreting spatial variations in riparian habitats, including comparisons of the north and south banks of the Rio Grande; (5) analyzing temporal changes at specific locations; and (6) developing a foundation for future analysis of riparian floodplain communities by linking local and remotely sensed regional data using GIS. Analysis and classification of riparian vegetation in the Lower Rio Grande Valley using remote sensing data supported by field surveys confirmed what other researchers have qualitatively suggested, that riparian vegetation has been greatly diminished since the early 1900s. Digital analysis of historical maps and aerial photographs of woodland distribution in Cameron County as part of this study revealed that in the mid-1930s there were ~81,887 ha of woodlands in Cameron County. By the early to mid-1980s, only 7,337 ha of woodlands in this original area remained, indicating a loss of ~91% of this resource. This quantitative assessment of woodland loss helps confirm the earlier qualitative estimates of up to 95% loss.


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