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Change in Vegetation Patterns Over a Large Forested Landscape Based on Historical and Contemporary Aerial Photography

Lydersen, Jamie M., Collins, Brandon M.
Ecosystems 2018 v.21 no.7 pp. 1348-1363
aerial photography, air, forests, landscapes, mountains, photographs, remote sensing, statistical models, topography, vegetation structure
Changes to vegetation structure and composition in forests adapted to frequent fire have been well documented. However, little is known about changes to the spatial characteristics of vegetation in these forests. Specifically, patch sizes and detailed information linking vegetation type to specific locations and growing conditions on the landscape are lacking. We used historical and recent aerial imagery to characterize historical vegetation patterns and assess contemporary change from those patterns. We created an orthorectified mosaic of aerial photographs from 1941 covering approximately 100,000 ha in the northern Sierra Nevada. The historical imagery, along with contemporary aerial imagery from 2005, was segmented into homogenous vegetation patches and classified into four relative cover classes using random forests analysis. A generalized linear mixed model was used to compare topographic associations of dense forest cover on the historical and contemporary landscapes. The amount of dense forest cover increased from 30 to 43% from 1941 to 2005, replacing moderate forest cover as the most dominant class. Concurrent with the increase in extent, the area-weighted mean patch size of dense forest cover increased tenfold, indicating greater continuity of dense forest cover and more homogenous vegetation patterns across the contemporary landscape. Historically, dense forest cover was rare on southwesterly aspects, but in the contemporary forest, it was common across a broad range of aspects. Despite the challenges of processing historical air photographs, the unique information they provide on landscape vegetation patterns makes them a valuable source of reference information for forests impacted by past management practices.