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ESA 2020: Reforestation or Reorganization?

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Presentation from the 2020 annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), which took place online August 3-6, 2020.
Click the link above to view the recording of this presentation.


Reforestation or Reorganization? How Landscape Context and Climate Can Inform Post-Fire Decision-Making

Jonathan Coop, Western Colorado University
Collin Haffey, The Nature Conservancy
Jens Stevens, U.S. Geological Survey
Kyle Rodman, University of Wisconsin, Madison



Changing fire regimes and climate can surmount forest resilience, driving long-term conversion to alternate and non-forested states. These changes compel a management framework that accommodates a broad range of possible ecological outcomes. However, the development and application of such a framework is curbed by knowledge gaps and uncertainties—what can we do?—in addition to the lack of a clear social or ethical mandate—what should we do? Across the eastern Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, a series of extreme wildfires, including the 60,000-ha Las Conchas fire in 2011, provide a case study in fire-driven ecological reorganization. Our objective here is to advance a management framework for fire-driven change in this landscape. We draw on recent and ongoing research on fire-vegetation dynamics in this region to address key knowledge gaps, account for irreducible uncertainties, and plan reforestation that fosters ecological understanding and supports community values. In particular, we focus on how fire refugia and climate can provide a template for management interventions, or lack thereof.


A modern framework for forest management necessarily includes strategies for 1) sustaining contemporary forest systems through interventions that enhance disturbance resistance and post-disturbance recovery mechanisms, but also 2) accommodating ecological reorganization through non-intervention or by inducing shifts toward desired alternate outcomes. Ecological research in dry conifer forests has emphasized sustaining forests; however, where high-severity fire has already occurred, the science and management of ecological reorganization are less well developed. As a template for both research and management, we first developed a high-resolution map of forested refugia within the Las Conchas footprint, finding that >50% of this landscape is now > 50 m from tree seed sources. We next employed this map, climate surfaces, and empirically-derived predictors of tree regeneration to model the likelihood of natural forest recovery and identify suitable areas for tree planting. Third, reforestation efforts were designed to support multi-scale compositional and landscape heterogeneity, allowing for functioning non-forest patches and facilitating expected climate-associated shifts of key tree species. However, a suite of persistent knowledge gaps remain, some of which can only be filled via trial and error, demanding that management interventions employ a rigorous experimental design. As such, reforestation is planned to simultaneously maximize two functions: climate-smart and landscape context-dependent reforestation aligned with community values, and co-produced, applied ecological knowledge critical to adaptive management for an era of change.