This historical and conceptual overview of riparian ecosystem restoration discusses how riparian ecosystems have been defined, describes the hydrologic, geomorphic, and biotic processes that create and maintain riparian ecosystems of the western USA, identifies the main types of anthropogenic disturbances occurring in these ecosystems, and provides an overview of restoration methods for each disturbance type. We suggest that riparian ecosystems consist of two zones: Zone I occupies the active floodplain and is frequently inundated and Zone I1 extends from the active floodplain to the valley wall. Successful restoration depends on understanding the physical and biological processes that influence natural riparian ecosystems and the types of disturbance that have degraded riparian areas. Thus we recommend adopting a process-based approach for riparian restoration. Disturbances to riparian ecosystems in the western USA result from streamflow modifications by dams, reservoirs, and diversions; stream channelization; direct modification of the riparian ecosystem; and watershed disturbances. Four topics should be addressed to advance the state of science for restoration of riparian ecosystems: (1) interdisciplinary approaches, (2) a unified framework, (3) a better understanding of fundamental riparian ecosystem processes, and (4) restoration potential more closely related to disturbance type. Three issues should be considered regarding the cause of the degraded environment: (1) the location of the causative disturbance with respect to the degraded riparian area, (2) whether the disturbance is ongoing or can be eliminated, and (3) whether or not recovery will occur naturally if the disturbance is removed.