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Can managed fires restore forests at landscape scales? Lessons from two southwestern wilderness areas

Date: August 25, 2016

Managed wildfires are a tool for restoring forests in the southwestern U.S.

Examples of managed wildfire burning as a surface fire in the Gila Wilderness (photographs by the U.S. Forest Service).
Examples of managed wildfire burning as a surface fire in the Gila Wilderness. Photo: U.S. Forest Service


Managers across the southwestern U.S. have recently begun to increase the use of managed wildfires (naturally ignited fires) to meet resource objectives. The objective of such fires is to reduce fuels and create more resilient forest. The practice of using wildfire as a landscape restoration tool has a long history within wilderness areas. After using wildfire for more than 40 years many important lessons can be learned from these wilderness landscapes that can be useful to other managers as this tool goes mainstream.   

The goal of this project was to evaluate the ability to restore wildfire at landscape scales within two wilderness areas in the southwestern U.S. and determine how that information could be related elsewhere. 

This study summarizes the effects of fire management practices on key resources, documents common challenges in implementing these practices, and provides lessons for how to address them. We found that wildfire has been used to successfully reduce fuels and restore forest structure, particularly in pine-dominated systems and with limited success in mixed conifer and pinyon-juniper systems. 

Many ponderosa pine stands that have burned one or more times have more heterogeneous, open stand structures with lower densities of small trees.
Stands that have seen managed fire, such as this one in the Gila Wilderness, should exhibit a reduced probability of high-severity fire. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
Managers were able to accomplish this by using a more cautious early/initial approach and then developing more aggressive strategies as stakeholders support increased. Pre-season planning and coordination within and between agencies also played a critical role in managing natural ignitions within specific areas. Public education and communication was critical in developing social support for these actions.   

Key Findings  

  • Naturally ignited wildfires can be used to reduce fuels and restore open forest structure at large landscape levels.

  • Restoring wildfire at landscape levels requires patience and coordination as well as public communication and education.     



Principal Investigators: 
External Partners: 
Molly Hunter, University Of Arizona (PI)
Calvin Farris, National Park Service (co-PI)
Research Location: 
Arizona and New Mexico