Forests 2020, 11(10), 1122; - 21 Oct 2020
We discovered unique Douglas-fir open woodlands in the Umatilla National Forest using historical surveys. Historical ponderosa pine forests of the western United States are transitioning to denser forests comprised of a greater proportion of fire-sensitive species, including true firs. We used historical (1879 [...] Read more.
We discovered unique Douglas-fir open woodlands in the Umatilla National Forest using historical surveys. Historical ponderosa pine forests of the western United States are transitioning to denser forests comprised of a greater proportion of fire-sensitive species, including true firs. We used historical (1879 to 1887) surveys to quantify the composition and structure of the Umatilla National Forest in eastern Oregon and Washington and provided contemporary forest information for comparison. We also modeled fir and pine distributions using environmental predictors and the random forests and extreme gradient boosting classifiers. Historically, ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir comprised about 80% of all trees, with western larch relatively abundant at 10% of all trees. Currently, ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir are about 40% of all trees, while grand fir and lodgepole pine increased from rare species to about 40% of all trees. Historical density was about 165 trees/ha (trees > 12.7 cm in diameter). The wetter north unit of steep slopes and predominantly Douglas-fir was about 120 trees/ha, or open woodlands, whereas the drier, flatter south units of predominantly ponderosa pine were about 210 trees/ha, and densities of 160 and 190 trees/ha occurred on flat and gentle slopes, respectively, with predominantly ponderosa pine. Currently, Umatilla National Forest averages about 390 trees/ha; the north unit of grand fir and Douglas-fir tripled in density to 365 trees/ha, whereas the south units of ponderosa and lodgepole pines doubled in density to 410 trees/ha. Douglas-fir woodlands are an unusual combination of a relatively fire-sensitive tree species with an open structure, which may result from surface fires that remove tree regeneration, resulting in one layer of trees over an understory of herbaceous and shrubby vegetation. We interpreted that a spatially and temporally variable fire return interval favored Douglas-fir, but fires were frequent enough to allow herbaceous vegetation and shrubs to out-compete trees, maintaining the balance between trees and other vegetation in woodlands. Fire exclusion has resulted in forest-type transition and also an information deficit about circumstances under which relatively fire-sensitive Douglas-fir instead of fire-tolerant ponderosa pine would establish at low densities over large extents. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Analysis and Management of Disturbance Effects on Forest Ecosystems)