This month in ecological science, researchers evaluate the U.S. National Fire Plan to restore western U.S. forests, fire’s key role in the return of a native lizard to the Ozarks and what historical fire records and sediment cores can tell us about the Arctic Tundra’s fire regime. These articles are available online or published in recent issues of the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) journals.
In addition, experts from ESA’s Rapid Response Team are available to discuss ecological aspects of recent and ongoing fires in Arizona, California, Texas and elsewhere.
Taking stock of U.S. strategies to restore forests in the West
A study published in the June issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment is the first to analyze recent federal strategies to restore forests on western U.S. forestlands. Tania Schoennagel of the University of Colorado-Boulder and Cara Nelson of the University of Montana evaluated treatments implemented under the U.S. National Fire Plan (NFP); activities included removing trees, shrubs, grasses and litter with the goal of either protecting communities from wildfires or restoring open forests and low-severity fire. They found that 43 percent of forest area treated away from communities fell within forest types predicted to have a clear restoration need. For example, almost one-quarter of the total area treated was concentrated in ponderosa pine woodlands – the archetypal forest for restoration. Most of the area treated in Arizona, New Mexico, California and Arizona was in forest types predicted to have high restoration need. However, 14 percent of treated areas occurred in locations where the restoration need was predicted to be low, while 43 percent of treated areas occurred where restoration need was predicted to be either variable or unknown. As other researchers have noted, restoration is needed in areas such as ponderosa pine-dominated forests where past grazing and fire suppression has increased tree density and raised the risk of uncharacteristic high-severity fires. But forest types that are naturally dense and in which high-severity fires are the norm, fuel restoration treatments are unwarranted.
Only one percent of the West’s forested area that lies away from communities was treated under the NFP from 2004 to 2008. The authors note that, given the low proportion of forest area treated and the low chance of such treatments subsequently burning during the treatment lifespan, it is imperative that treatments confer ecological benefits regardless of subsequent wildfires. In addition, Schoennagel and Nelson conclude: “Although restorative fuel reduction will be needed in many ecosystems, we recommend that future policies move beyond an almost exclusive focus on fuels and explicitly consider climate and an expanding WUI [Wildland-Urban Interface] as important drivers of increasing wildfire risk in the western U.S.” Read more
Lizard returns out of ashes
The eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris collaris) is back from the brink of extinction in the Ozarks thanks to prescribed fires. The lizard is at home in glades in the highland region of the Ozarks. The glades are exposed bedrock which provides the reptiles with a desert-like habitat within the forestland. As described by Alan Templeton of Washington University and colleagues in their Ecology pre-print article, by 1980, the lizard populations were plummeting; fire suppression had degraded the glades and prevented the lizards from dispersing. Some glades were restored by clearing and burning and lizards from other areas were brought in. Still, these populations did not take off until prescribed fires began in the mid 1990s at which point the lizards began to colonize other glades and disperse among one another. Read more
Fire regimes in Arctic Alaska
Tundra fires significantly influence vegetation, wildlife, permafrost and carbon cycling. Yet the pattern and controls of historic tundra fire regimes are not well understood. Philip Higuera of the University of Idaho and colleagues used sediment records from four lakes to develop a 2000-year fire and vegetation history and compare it with previously-published fire records to gain a clearer picture of the spatial and temporal variability of tundra fires across Arctic Alaska. As they report in a preprint article inEcological Applications, the results indicate that frequent tundra burning has occurred under a range of climatic and vegetation scenarios. It also suggests important implications for managing tundra ecosystems as the Arctic responds to changes in the climate. Read more
The following scientists from ESA’s Rapid Response Team are available to discuss the recent and ongoing fires occurring around the United States:
Christensen’s research includes comparative studies of ecosystem responses to varying fire regimes across temperate North America and the use of remote sensing to evaluate long-term changes in forest ecosystems. He is interested in the application of basic ecological theory and models to management, and has collaborated with others to develop the concept of ecosystem management. Read more
University of Arizona
Swetnam studies natural and cultural disturbances of forest ecosystems across a broad range of temporal and spatial scales. He uses dendrochronology (tree rings) in combination with other natural archives and documentary sources to reconstruct the histories of fire, insect outbreaks, human land use, and climate. Read more
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Turner conducted long-term studies of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park that explored the effects of wildfire on patterns of post-fire vegetation and ecosystem processes (especially carbon and nitrogen dynamics). Currently, her research focuses on the interactions of fire, bark beetles and harvest in western forests. Read more
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