Multidecadal decline and recovery of aspen experiencing contrasting fire regimes: long-unburned, infrequent and frequent mixed-severity wildfire
Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) is a valued, minor component on western landscapes. It provides a wide range of ecosystem services and has been in decline throughout the arid west for the last century. This decline may be explained partially by the lack of fire on the landscape as aspen benefit from fire that eliminates conifer competition and stimulates reproduction through root suckering. Managers are interested in aspen restoration but there is a lack of knowledge about their spatial
... mics in response to fire. Our study area in northeastern California on the Lassen, Modoc and Plumas National Forests has experienced recent large mixed-severity wildfires where aspen was present, providing an opportunity to study the re-introduction of fire. We observed two time periods; a 54-year absence of fire from 1941 to 1993 preceding a 24-year period of wildfire activity from 1993 to 2017. We utilized aerial photos to delineate aspen stand size, location and succession to conifers. We chose aspen stands in areas where wildfires overlapped (twice-burned), where only a single wildfire burned, and areas that did not burn within the recent 24-year period. We looked at these same stands within the first period of fire exclusion for comparison (i.e., 1941-1993). In the absence of fire, all aspen stand areas declined and all stands experienced increases in conifer composition. After wildfire, stands that burned experienced a release from conifer competition and increased in stand area. Stands that burned twice or at high severity experienced a larger removal of conifer competition than stands that burned once at low severity, promoting aspen recovery and expansion. Stands with less edge:area ratio also expanded more with fire present. Across both time periods, stand movement, where aspen stand footprints were mostly in new areas compared to footprints of previous years, was highest in smaller stands. In the fire exclusion period, smaller stands exhibited greater changes in area and location (movement), highlighting their vulnerability to loss in the absence of disturbances that provide adequate growing space for aspen over time.