Toward reference conditions: Wildfire effects on flora in an old-growth ponderosa pine forest

Daniel C. Laughlin, Jonathan D. Bakker, Michael T. Stoddard, Mark L. Daniels, Judith D. Springer, Cara N. Gildar, Aaron M. Green, W. Wallace Covington

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Scopus citations


Remote ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA provide valuable examples of reference conditions due to their relatively uninterrupted fire regimes, limited grazing history, and protection from logging. Wildfire is an important disturbance agent in upland forests of the Interior West, yet repeated measurements taken before and after lightning-ignited fires are rare. In 1999, a low-severity Wildland Fire Use fire burned 156 ha on Fire Point, a peninsula dominated by old-growth ponderosa pines, which had not burned for at least 76 years. We measured understory plant community and forest floor characteristics in 1998 (1 year before the fire) and 2001 (2 years after the fire) at this site and at nearby reference sites that did not burn in 1999 but have had continuing fire regimes throughout the past century. After the wildfire, the plant community at Fire Point shifted toward higher compositional similarity with the reference sites. Analysis of functional group composition indicated that this change was due primarily to an increase in annual and biennial forbs. Gayophytum diffusum, Polygonum douglasii, Chenopodium spp., Solidago spp., Elymus elymoides, Calochortus nuttallii, Hesperostipa comata, and Lotus spp. were indicative of forests influenced by recent fires. Species richness, plant cover, plant layer density and plant diversity were significantly lower at Fire Point than at the reference sites, possibly due to long-term fire exclusion, but the fire did not increase the rate of change in these variables after 2 years. Few exotic species were present at any site. Forest floor depths at Fire Point were reduced to depths similar to the reference sites, primarily due to consumption of the duff layer. There was a significant inverse relationship between the ratio of duff:litter and species richness. Compared to fire-excluded forests, old-growth ponderosa pine forests influenced by low-intensity surface fires generally have greater plant species richness (especially annual forbs) and lighter fuel loads. This study supports the continued application of the Wildland Fire Use strategy in old-growth montane forests to maintain and improve forest health by altering understory species composition and reducing fuel loads.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)137-152
Number of pages16
JournalForest Ecology and Management
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 27 2004


  • Annuals
  • BACI design
  • Fire history
  • Grand Canyon
  • Ponderosa pine
  • Reference conditions
  • Understory vegetation
  • Wildland Fire Use

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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