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Dry forests and wildland fires of the inland Northwest USA: contrasting the landscape ecology of the pre-settlement and modern eras.Author(s): Paul F. Hessburg; James K. Agee; Jerry F. Franklin
Source: Forest Ecology and Management. 211: 117-139
Publication Series: Scientific Journal (JRNL)
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DescriptionPrior to Euro-American settlement, dry ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests (hereafter, the "dry forests") of the Inland Northwest were burned by frequent low- or mixed-severity fires. These mostly surface fires maintained low and variable tree densities, light and patchy ground fuels, simplified forest structure, and favored fire-tolerant trees, such as ponderosa pine, and a low and patchy cover of associated fire-tolerant shrubs and herbs. Low- and mixed-severity fires provided other important feedbacks and effects to ponderosa pine-dominated stands and landscapes. For example, in stands, frequent surface fires favored an ongoing yet piecemeal regeneration of fire-tolerant trees by periodically exposing patches of mineral soil. They maintained fire-tolerant forest structures by elevating tree crown bases and scorching or consuming many seedlings, saplings, and pole-sized trees. They cycled nutrients from branches and foliage to the soil, where they could be used by other plants, and promoted the growth and development of low and patchy understory shrub and herb vegetation. Finally, surface fires reduced the long-term threat of running crown fires by reducing the fuel bed and metering out individual tree and group torching, and they reduced competition for site resources among surviving trees, shrubs, and herbs. In landscapes, the patterns of dry forest structure and composition that resulted from frequent fires reinforced the occurrence of low- or mixed-severity fires, because frequent burning spatially isolated conditions that supported high-severity fires. These spatial patterns reduced the likelihood of severe fire behavior and effects at each episode of fire. Rarely, dry forest landscapes were affected by more severe climate-driven events. Extant dry forests no longer appear or function as they once did. Large landscapes are homogeneous in their composition and structure, and the regional landscape is set up for severe, large fire and insect disturbance events. Among ecologists, there is also a high degree of concern about how future dry forests will develop, if fires continue to be large and severe. In this paper, we describe the key landscape pattern and process changes wrought by the sum of the settlement and management influences to date, and we point to an uncertain future for ecosystem management. Widespread selection cutting of the largest and oldest ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir in the 20th century has reduced much of the economic opportunity that might have been associated with restoration, and long-term investment will likely be needed, if large-scale restoration activities are attempted. An uncertain future for ecosystem management is based on the lack of current and improbable future social consensus concerning desired outcomes for public forestlands, the need for significant financial investment in ecosystem restoration, a lack of integrated planning and decision tools, and mismatches between the existing planning process, Congressional appropriations, and complex management and restoration problems.
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CitationHessburg, Paul F.; Agee, James K.; Franklin, Jerry F. 2005. Dry forests and wildland fires of the inland Northwest USA: contrasting the landscape ecology of the pre-settlement and modern eras. Forest Ecology and Management. 211: 117-139
KeywordsPinus ponderosa, Abies grandis, Abies concolor, Pseudotsuga menziesii, landscape ecology, mixed conifer forests, fire ecology, fire history, European settlement, historical range of variability
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