Changes in forest structure of a mixed conifer forest, southwestern Colorado, USA

Peter Z. Fulé, Julie E. Korb, Rosalind Wu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

93 Scopus citations


We selected a warm/dry mixed conifer forest (ponderosa pine, white fir, Douglas-fir, and aspen) in southwestern Colorado to reconstruct historical conditions of fire regime and forest structure in preparation for an experiment in ecological restoration. Although mixed conifer forests are of high ecological and social value in the Southwest, they have been less studied than ponderosa pine forests. Fire-scar analysis on a 150-ha area showed recurring fires at mean intervals of 24 years (all fires with minimum of 2 sample trees scarred) to 32 years (fire scarring 25% or more of sample trees) from the 16th century until the abrupt cessation of fire after 1868, concurrent with European settlement. There was no evidence in age or species-specific data of severe burning at the scale of the study blocks (approximately 200 ha). The forest remained unharvested throughout most of the 20th century, until a cut in the early 1990s removed approximately equal basal areas of ponderosa pine and white fir. Forest structure had already changed substantially, however. Total basal area increased from an average of 11 m2 ha-1 in 1870 to 27 m2 ha-1 in 2003, despite harvesting of at least 8.4 m2 ha-1. Ponderosa pine declined from representing nearly two-thirds of basal area in 1870 to one-third in 2003. The other species increased dramatically, especially white fir, which went from 12% to 35% of basal area and dominated stand density with an average of 392 trees ha-1. Total tree density increased from 142 trees ha-1 in 1870 to 677 trees ha-1 in 2003. The ecological changes that occurred here since the 19th century have been in exactly the opposite direction considering the warm, fire-favoring climate expected in the 21st century. If warm/dry mixed conifer forests of southern Colorado are to have a reasonable chance for persistence under the future climate regime, restoring conditions more similar to the frequently burned, open forests of the past is likely to be a useful starting point.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1200-1210
Number of pages11
JournalForest Ecology and Management
Issue number7
StatePublished - Sep 15 2009


  • Dendrochronology
  • Ecological restoration
  • Fire history
  • Fuel
  • San Juan Mountains

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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