Crowding, Climate Change & the Case for Social Distancing Among Trees

by Lael Gilbert, Utah State University
January 28, 2022

For many, an ideal forest is one that looks the same as it did before European colonizers arrived. As today’s forests are hit with disturbances like fire, drought and insect invasions, restoration efforts often attempt to nudge the landscape back to this “natural” state. But historical conditions are becoming increasingly hard to achieve in a changing world, according to new research. Managers need to consider new strategies for building resilient forests, according to Tucker Furniss and Jim Lutz from Utah State University’s Department of Wildland Resources in the S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources.

In the age of large-scale fires, forest-wide beetle invasions and frequent drought, maintaining “ideal” historical conditions is becoming increasingly unrealistic, the researchers say. Disturbances are coming at forests more frequently, and the changing climate makes things unpredictable. Recreating historical conditions has been a key strategy for restoration efforts, but today’s novel conditions require different strategies. Specifically, the research shows that lower crowding for trees can increase chances of survival after fire. Results from two long-term studies (covering 23 years and more than 50,000 individual trees) show that chances for long-term tree survival increased when trees had more space, by reducing competition and helping trees recover from fire more quickly.

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