Effectiveness of Restoration Treatments for Reducing Fuels and Increasing Understory Diversity in Shrubby Mixed-Conifer Forests of the Southern Rocky Mountains, USA
Exclusion of natural surface fires in warm/dry mixed-conifer forests of the western U.S. has increased potential for stand-replacing crown fires and reduced resilience of these systems to other disturbances, such as drought and insect attack. Tree thinning and the application of prescribed fire are commonly used to restore more resilient ecological conditions, but currently, there is a lack of long-term data with which to evaluate restoration treatment effectiveness in forest types where
... types where resprouting shrubs dominate understory communities. At a mixed-conifer site in southwestern Colorado, we compared forest structure and understory vegetation responses to three restoration treatments (thin/burn, burn, and control) over 10 years in a completely randomized and replicated experiment. Forest density, canopy cover, and crown fuel loads were consistently lower, and crown base height was higher, in thin/burn than burn or controls, but the effects diminished over time. Ten years following treatment, >99% of all plant species within both treatments and the control were native in origin. There were no differences between treatments in understory richness, diversity, cover, or surface fuels, but graminoid cover more than doubled in all treatments over the 15-year monitoring period. Similarly, there was more than a 250% increase post-treatment in shrub density, with the greatest increases in the thin/burn treatment. In addition, we saw an increase in the average shrub height for both treatments and the control, with shrub stems >80 cm becoming the dominant size class in the thin/burn treatment. Conifer seedling density was significantly lower in thin/burn compared with burn and control treatments after 10 years. Taken together, these conditions create challenges for managers aiming to reestablish natural fire patterns and sustain mixed-conifer forests. To limit the dominance of resprouting shrubs and facilitate conifer regeneration after overstory thinning and prescribed fire, managers may need to consider new or more intensive approaches to forest restoration, particularly given current and projected climate change.