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Conserving and Restoring Old Growth in Frequent-fire Forests: Cycles of Disruption and Recovery

Dave Egan

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Abstract

I provide a synthesis of the papers in the Special Issue, The Conservation and Restoration of Old Growth in Frequent-fire Forests of the American West. These papers—the product of an Old Growth Writing Workshop, held at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona on 18–19 April 2006—represent the ideas of 25 workshop participants who argue for a new attitude toward managing old growth in the frequent-fire forests of the American West. Unlike the lush, old-growth rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, the dry, frequent-fire forests of the western United States evolved with surface fires that disturbed the system with such regularity that young trees were almost always killed. When saplings did survive, they grew beyond the harm of frequent surface fires and, ultimately, attained the characteristics that define old growth in these systems. This system worked well, producing old-growth trees in abundance, until the onset of Euro-American settlement in the mid- to late-19th century. The arrival of these settlers put in motion an interplay of unprecedented social, political, economic, and ecological forces (e.g., removal of Native Americans and their fire-based land management systems, overgrazing of the understory, aggressive logging, establishment of federal land management agencies, implementation of a federal fire suppression policy). These activities have culminated in 1) overly dense forested ecosystems that are now on the verge of collapse because of catastrophic fires (i.e., crown fire at the landscape level; the Rodeo-Chediski Fire) and insect outbreaks, 2) the emergence of conservation-minded environmental legislation and policy, and 3) greater levels of interaction between citizens, federal agencies, and fire-prone landscapes. Recognizing the tenuous ecological situation of these forests, restoration ecologists, foresters, and others have developed ways to return historic ecological processes and lower tree densities to these forests. However, their efforts are not without challenges, including working with communities and citizens, serving as a bridge between entrenched bureaucracies (i.e., federal agencies and environmental groups), balancing both ecological and economic interests, and producing new applied technologies and science-based policy to advance conservation and restoration efforts aimed at preserving and developing old growth within a healthy forest environment.

Key words

adaptive cycle, definitions of old growth, forest management, forest policy, old-growth forests, social–ecological system
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087