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Defining Old Growth for Fire-adapted Forests of the Western United States

Merrill R. Kaufmann, U.S. Forest Service (retired)
Daniel Binkley, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute
Peter Z. Fulé, Northern Arizona School of Forestry; Ecological Restoration Institute
Marlin Johnson, U.S. Forest Service, Southwest Region
Scott L. Stephens, University of California Berkeley
Thomas W. Swetnam, Lab of Tree Ring Research, University of Arizona

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Abstract

There are varying definitions of old-growth forests because of differences in environment and differing fire influence across the Intermountain West. Two general types of forests reflect the role of fire: 1) forests shaped by natural changes in structure and species makeup—plant succession—that are driven by competitive differences among species and individual trees and by small-scale disturbances, and 2) forests where plant succession processes are disrupted by major biological disturbances (fire, insects, wind, or drought) extending across larger areas. Some case examples of old-growth forests where fire was historically frequent are used. The examples sketch out the typical biophysical settings, fire regime, natural disturbance factors, spatial features of patches, and the processes and conditions that produce spatial changes of the landscape over time. These examples confirm the complexity of describing or defining old growth in frequent-fire forests. We define fire-adapted forests at three spatial scales, whereas the standard definition of old growth refers to a patch or stand condition. Our definition is based on ecological principles rather than on the
cultural aspects of old growth. It focuses on central tendencies, given all the possible combinations of conditions and processes, that move forests toward old growth in the fire-adapted forests of the Intermountain West.

Key words

fire-adapted forests; fire frequency; fire intensity; fire interval; fire severity; old-growth forests; old-growth landscapes; old-growth patches; old-growth stands
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087