Holocene vegetation and fire regimes in subalpine and mixed conifer forests, southern Rocky Mountains, USA

R. S. Anderson, C. D. Allen, J. L. Toney, R. B. Jass, A. N. Bair

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


Our understanding of the present forest structure of western North America hinges on our ability to determine antecedent forest conditions. Sedimentary records from lakes and bogs in the southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico provide information on the relationships between climate and vegetation change, and fire history since deglaciation. We present a new pollen record from Hunters Lake (Colorado) as an example of a high-elevation vegetation history from the southern Rockies. We then present a series of six sedimentary records from ∼2600 to 3500-m elevation, including sites presently at the alpine?subalpine boundary, within the Picea engelmannii?Abies lasiocarpa forest and within the mixed conifer forest, to determine the history of fire in high-elevation forests there. High Artemisia and low but increasing percentages of Picea and Pinus suggest vegetation prior to 13 500 calendar years before present (cal yr BP) was tundra or steppe, with open spruce woodland to ∼11 900 cal yr BP. Subalpine forest (Picea engelmannii, Abies lasiocarpa) existed around the lake for the remainder of the Holocene. At lower elevations, Pinus ponderosa and/or contorta expanded 11 900 to 10 200 cal yr BP; mixed conifer forest expanded ∼8600 to 4700 cal yr BP; and Pinus edulis expanded after ∼4700 cal yr BP. Sediments from lake sites near the alpine?subalpine transition contained five times less charcoal than those entirely within subalpine forests, and 40 times less than bog sites within mixed conifer forest. Higher fire episode frequencies occurred between ∼12 000 and 9000 cal yr BP (associated with the initiation or expansion of south-west monsoon and abundant lightning, and significant biomass during vegetation turnover) and at ∼2000?1000 cal yr BP (related to periodic droughts during the long-term trend towards wetter conditions and greater biomass). Fire episode frequencies for subalpine?alpine transition and subalpine sites were on average 5 to 10 fire events/1000 years over the Holocene, corresponding to one fire event every ∼100 to 200 years. (5) Our Holocene-length sedimentary charcoal records provide additional evidence for the anomalous nature of the 20th-century fire regime, where fires were largely suppressed as a national policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)96-114
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Journal of Wildland Fire
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2008


  • Fire history
  • Paleoecology
  • Pollen analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Ecology


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