Trajectories and tipping points of piñon–juniper woodlands after fire and thinning

Michala L. Phillips, Cara Lauria, Tova Spector, John B. Bradford, Catherine Gehring, Brooke B. Osborne, Armin Howell, Edmund E. Grote, Renee J. Rondeau, Gillian M. Trimber, Benjamin Robinson, Sasha C. Reed

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Piñon–juniper (PJ) woodlands are a dominant community type across the Intermountain West, comprising over a million acres and experiencing critical effects from increasing wildfire. Large PJ mortality and regeneration failure after catastrophic wildfire have elevated concerns about the long-term viability of PJ woodlands. Thinning is increasingly used to safeguard forests from fire and in an attempt to increase climate resilience. We have only a limited understanding of how fire and thinning will affect the structure and function of PJ ecosystems. Here, we examined vegetation structure, microclimate conditions, and PJ regeneration dynamics following ~20 years post-fire and thinning treatments. We found that burned areas had undergone a state shift that did not show signs of returning to their previous state. This shift was characterized by (1) distinct plant community composition dominated by grasses; (2) a lack of PJ recruitment; (3) a decrease in the sizes of interspaces in between plants; (4) lower abundance of late successional biological soil crusts; (5) lower mean and minimum daily soil moisture values; (6) lower minimum daily vapor pressure deficit; and (7) higher photosynthetically active radiation. Thinning created distinct plant communities and served as an intermediate between intact and burned communities. More intensive thinning decreased PJ recruitment and late successional biocrust cover. Our results indicate that fire has the potential to create drier and more stressful microsite conditions, and that, in the absence of active management following fire, there may be shifts to persistent ecological states dominated by grasses. Additionally, more intensive thinning had a larger impact on community structure and recruitment than less intensive thinning, suggesting that careful consideration of goals could help avoid unintended consequences. While our results indicate the vulnerability of PJ ecosystems to fire, they also highlight management actions that could be adapted to create conditions that promote PJ re-establishment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere17149
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2024


  • fire
  • invasion
  • plant community assembly
  • soil moisture
  • thinning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


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