Gravel-bed river floodplains in mountain landscapes disproportionately concentrate diverse habitats, nutrient cycling, productivity of biota, and species interactions. Although stream ecologists know that river channel and floodplain habitats used by aquatic organisms are maintained by hydrologic regimes that mobilize gravel-bed sediments, terrestrial ecologists have largely been unaware of the importance of floodplain structures and processes to the life requirements of a wide variety of species. We provide insight into gravel-bed rivers as the ecological nexus of glaciated mountain landscapes. We show why gravel-bed river floodplains are the primary arena where interactions take place among aquatic, avian, and terrestrial species from microbes to grizzly bears and provide essential connectivity as corridors for movement for both aquatic and terrestrial species. Paradoxically, gravel-bed river floodplains are also disproportionately unprotected where human developments are concentrated. Structural modifications to floodplains such as roads, railways, and housing and hydrologic-altering hydroelectric or water storage dams have severe impacts to floodplain habitat diversity and productivity, restrict local and regional connectivity, and reduce the resilience of both aquatic and terrestrial species, including adaptation to climate change. To be effective, conservation efforts in glaciated mountain landscapes intended to benefit the widest variety of organisms need a paradigm shift that has gravel-bed rivers and their floodplains as the central focus and that prioritizes the maintenance or restoration of the intact structure and processes of these critically important systems throughout their length and breadth.
Keywords: Gravel-bed rivers; biodiversity; complexity; connectivity; coupled natural and human systems; disturbance; ecosystem conservation; floodplains; hydrogeomorphic.