Ecological restoration guided by historical reference conditions can increase resilience to climate change of southwestern U.S. Ponderosa pine forests

Michael T. Stoddard, John P. Roccaforte, Andrew J.Sánchez Meador, David W. Huffman, Peter Z. Fulé, Amy E.M. Waltz, William W. Covington

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Broad-scale forest restoration projects are implemented across the western United States to restore seasonally dry, frequent-fire-adapted ecosystems to improve ecological function and enhance resilience by increasing resistance to crown fire and climatic stressors. Despite the widespread use of restoration treatments that center on tree thinning and application of prescribed fire, the longevity of beneficial effects and the robustness of outcomes under future climate change predictions remains unclear. In this study, we remeasured a set of experimental areas established a minimum of 20 years ago that comprise a network of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forest restoration study sites in northern Arizona. We analyzed ecological resiliency by evaluating forest conditions in terms of resistance to climatic stressors and potential crown fire in units that were thinned following evidence-based restoration guidelines (ERG), then burned with prescribed fire at multiple intervals, compared against paired untreated controls. Resilience indicators included forest structure, tree mortality, tree growth, regeneration, canopy fuels, and crowning index. We also simulated future forest conditions under a warming climate scenario (RCP 4.5) with a range of prescribed fire return intervals. Results indicated that experimental areas where restoration treatments were implemented remained more resilient to climate stressors compared to controls after 20 years. Treated areas had significantly lower tree mortality and greater average diameter growth compared to controls. Furthermore, forest structure generally remained similar to historical reference conditions in treated units with the exception of increases in ingrowth of sprouting species at the drier sites. Canopy fuel load and crown fire hazard in treated units remained significantly lower than controls, indicating that treatments remained effective in reducing crown fire potential over the 20-year study period without the need for additional tree thinning. Modeling basal area, crowning index, and the proportion of basal area in large trees under a future warming scenario suggested that the treated units underwent less changed than untreated areas. Under climate change, management of fire regimes even at longer-than-historical intervals (historical ≈ 5 yr, tested 5, 10, and 20 yr) would maintain basal area within our historical range of variability and maintain fire resistant forest over the next several decades. However, decline by the end of the century is concerning. Our results suggest that forest restoration treatments, guided by historical reference conditions, promote ecological resilience in the long-term and continued maintenance burning into the future is likely warranted even with continued drought and warming.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number119256
JournalForest Ecology and Management
StatePublished - Aug 1 2021


  • Climate-forest vegetation simulator (FVS)
  • Evidence-based ecological restoration
  • Historical range of variation
  • Resilience
  • Southwest
  • Treatment longevity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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