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Ecol Appl. 2011 Sep;21(6):2210-22.

Fire history and tree recruitment in the Colorado Front Range upper montane zone: implications for forest restoration.

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Department of Geography, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80304, USA.


Forests experiencing moderate- or mixed-severity fire regimes are presumed to be widespread across the western United States, but few studies have characterized these complex disturbance regimes and their effects on contemporary forest structure. Restoration of pre-fire-suppression open-forest structure to reduce the risk of uncharacteristic stand-replacing fires is a guiding principle in forest management policy, but identifying which forests are clear candidates for restoration remains a challenge. We conducted dendroecological reconstructions of fire history and stand structure at 40 sites in the upper montane zone of the Colorado Front Range (2400-2800 m), sampled in proportion to the distribution of forest types in that zone (50% dominated by ponderosa pine, 28% by lodgepole pine, 12% by aspen, 10% by Douglas-fir). We characterized past fire severity based on remnant criteria at each site in order to assess the effect of fire history on tree establishment patterns, and we also evaluated the influence of fire suppression and climate. We found that 62% of the sites experienced predominantly moderate-severity fire, 38% burned at high severity, and no sites burned exclusively at low severity. The proportion of total tree and sapling establishment was significantly different among equal time periods based on a chi-square test, with highest tree and sapling establishment during the pre-fire-suppression period (1835-1919). Superposed epoch analysis revealed that fires burned during years of extreme drought (95% CI). The major pulse of tree establishment in the upper montane zone occurred during a multidecadal period of extreme drought conditions in the Colorado Front Range (1850-1889), during which 53% of the fires from the 1750-1989 period burned. In the upper montane zone of the Colorado Front Range, historical evidence suggests that these forests are resilient to prolonged periods of severe drought and associated severe fires.

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