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The Role of Old-growth Forests in Frequent-fire Landscapes

Daniel Binkley, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute
Tom Sisk, Northern Arizona University, Environmental Sciences; ForestERA
Carol Chambers, Northern Arizona University, School of Forestry
Judy Springer, Ecological Restoration Institute
William Block, U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station

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Abstract

Classic ecological concepts and forestry language regarding old growth are not well suited to frequent-fire landscapes. In frequent-fire, old-growth landscapes, there is a symbiotic relationship between the trees, the understory graminoids, and fire that results in a healthy ecosystem. Patches of old growth interspersed with younger growth and open, grassy areas provide a wide variety of habitats for animals, and have a higher level of biodiversity. Fire suppression is detrimental to these forests, and eventually destroys all old growth. The reintroduction of fire into degraded frequent-fire, old-growth forests, accompanied by appropriate thinning, can restore a balance to these ecosystems. Several areas require further research and study: 1) the ability of the understory to respond to restoration treatments, 2) the rate of ecosystem recovery following wildfires whose level of severity is beyond the historic or natural range of variation, 3) the effects of climate change, and 4) the role of the microbial community. In addition, it is important to recognize that much of our knowledge about these old-growth systems comes from a few frequent-fire forest types.

Key words

ecological processes; evolutionary adaptations; historic range of variation (HRV); human values; knowledge gaps; resilience; understory vegetation
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087