Restoring Composition and Structure in Southwestern Frequent-Fire Forests: A science-based framework for improving ecosystem resiliency
Ponderosa pine and dry mixed-conifer forests in the Southwest United States are experiencing, or have become increasingly susceptible to, large-scale severe wildfire, insect, and disease episodes resulting in altered plant and animal demographics, reduced productivity and biodiversity, and impaired ecosystem processes and functions. We present a management framework based on a synthesis of science on forest ecology and management, reference conditions, and lessons learned during implementations of our restoration framework. Our framework focuses on the restoration of key elements similar to the historical composition and structure of vegetation in these forests: (1) species composition; (2) groups of trees; (3) scattered individual trees; (4) grass-forb-shrub interspaces; (5) snags, logs, and woody debris; and (6) variation in the arrangements of these elements in space and time. Our framework informs management strategies that can improve the resiliency of frequent-fire forests and facilitate the resumption of characteristic ecosystem processes and functions by restoring the composition, structure, and spatial patterns of vegetation. We believe restoration of key compositional and structural elements on a per-site basis will restore resiliency of frequent-fire forests in the Southwest, and thereby position them to better resist, and adapt to, future disturbances and climates.