Riparian Vegetation Response amid Variable Climate Conditions across the Upper Gila River Watershed: Informing Tribal Restoration Priorities


Riparian systems across the Southwest United States are extremely valuable for the human and ecological communities that engage with them. However, they have experienced substantial changes and stresses over the past century, including non-native vegetation expansion, vegetation die-offs, and increased fire activity. Vegetation management approaches, such as ecological restoration, may address some of these stressors as well as reduce the risk of future impacts. We apply remote sensing to inform restoration priorities along the upper Gila River within the San Carlos Apache Reservation and Upper Gila River watershed. First, we develop a spatially and temporally explicit trend analysis across three observed climate periods (1985–1993, 1993–2014, 2014–2021) using the Landsat-derived indices to quantify changes in riparian vegetation conditions. These maps can be used to identify areas potentially more at risk for degradation. Second, we analyze changes in riparian vegetation within a climate framework to better understand trends and the potential effect of climate change. Vegetation greenness has largely increased throughout the watershed despite intensifying drought conditions across our study period, though areas within the lower watershed have shown increased stress and higher rates of wildfire and other disturbances over the past 5-years. Nevertheless, small-scale restoration activities appear to show improving vegetation conditions, suggesting efficacy of these restoration activities. Results from this study may be integrated with restoration objectives to develop a restoration plan that will help riparian vegetation communities adapt to change.