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Efficacy of variable density thinning and prescribed fire for restoring forest heterogeneity to mixed-conifer forest in the central Sierra Nevada, CA

Knapp, Eric E., Lydersen, Jamie M., North, Malcolm P., Collins, Brandon M.
Forest ecology and management 2017 v.406 pp. 228-241
canopy, fuel loading, mountains, drought, fuels, stand density, trees, water stress, species diversity, wildfires, wildlife habitats, prescribed burning, stand basal area, mortality, forests
Frequent-fire forests were historically characterized by lower tree density, a higher proportion of pine species, and greater within-stand spatial variability, compared to many contemporary forests where fire has been excluded. Asa result, such forests are now increasingly unstable, prone to uncharacteristically severe wildfire or high levels of tree mortality in times of drought stress. While reducing tree density might help to restore resilience, thinning treatments are frequently seen as conflicting with management for other resources such as wildlife habitat, in part because standard thinning prescriptions don’t typically produce the degree of within-stand heterogeneity found in historical forests. In this study, we compare stand structures and heterogeneity produced by two different mechanical thinning treatments and in an unthinned control, all with or without prescribed fire asa follow-up treatment. The “high variability” thinning treatment was designed to produce the spatial variability once found in frequent fire forests and was based on historical data from nearby old-growth stands, while the “low variability” thinning treatment retained a similar number of trees but at a relatively even crown spacing. Stand averages and degree of variation for common forest metrics were calculated and values compared to a historical old-growth reference stand. Both thinning treatments reduced tree density and basal area, and shifted species composition towards historical values. Thinning treatments contained a deficit of trees in both the smallest (<25cm) and largest (>80cm) size classes, relative to historical conditions. The high variability thinning treatment increased forest structure variation more than the low variability thinning treatment for most measures and retained a broader distribution of canopy closure values across the treatment units. While prescribed fire also reduced stand density and increased the amount of within-stand heterogeneity (when delayed mortality was included), the magnitude was much less than that produced by thinning. Prescribed fire did not significantly reduce basal area or alter the species composition. Prescribed burning did significantly reduce surface fuel loads, while thinning alone had no effect for most fuel classes. Our results show that high variability thinning coupled with prescribed burning resulted in a forest better aligned with the conditions present in historical frequent-fire forests, which were known to be more resilient to both wildfire and drought.