Forest restoration in a surface fire-dependent ecosystem: An example from a mixed conifer forest, southwestern Colorado, USA

Julie E. Korb, Peter Z. Fulé, Michael T. Stoddard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Over a century of fire suppression in warm/dry mixed conifer forests of southwestern Colorado, USA has resulted in changes that have disrupted feedback interactions between vegetation composition and structure and the accompanying natural fire regime. The ecosystem is now more susceptible to high intensity crown fires that were previously rare or absent in this forest type, which can lead to novel ecosystems. We established four replicated blocks of (1) thin/burn, (2) burn alone and (3) control treatments, each approximately 16-ha, to quantify the effects of restoration treatments on forest structure. We sampled in 2003 (pre-treatment) and in 2009 (post-treatment). There were no significant changes in the control and burn alone treatments for tree density, basal area, canopy cover and tree regeneration between pre- and post-treatment. Significant changes in the thin/burn treatments included: tree density declining 82% (582.7treesha -1), principally white fir and Douglas-fir; tree canopy cover decreasing 36%; basal area declining 49% (12.5m 2ha -1), primarily from white fir; aspen tree regeneration increasing by 362% (582.7treesha -1), and white fir regeneration decreasing by 94% (249.1treesha -1). Overstory trees that died tended to be younger, shorter, and/or smaller in diameter. Multivariate analysis of tree basal area by species in the thin/burn treatments in 2009 showed a strong directional shift away from 2003 pre-treatment data towards the reconstructed historical (1870) forest structure. Burn alone treatments were distinct from controls after treatment in 2009 but did not resemble reconstructed 1870 forest structure. Thin/burn treatments moved warm/dry mixed conifer forests in southwestern Colorado rapidly along the trajectory toward historical reference conditions by altering forest composition and structure. Burn alone treatments were less effective but also less costly. Forest restoration will make forests more resilient to stand-replacing fires and subsequent transitions to novel ecosystems under a warmer, drier climate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10-18
Number of pages9
JournalForest Ecology and Management
StatePublished - Apr 1 2012


  • Adaptive management
  • Aspen
  • Ecological restoration
  • Ponderosa pine
  • San Juan Mountains
  • White fir

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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