Many low-elevation dry forests of the western United States contain more small trees and fewer large trees, more down woody debris, and less diverse and vigorous understory plant communities compared to conditions under historical fire regimes. These altered structural conditions may contribute to increased probability of unnaturally severe wildfires, susceptibility to uncharacteristic insect outbreaks, and drought-related mortality. Broad-scale fuel reduction and restoration treatments are proposed to promote stand development on trajectories toward more sustainable structures. Little research to date, however, has quantified the effects of these treatments on the ecosystem, especially delayed and latent tree mortality resulting directly or indirectly from treatments. In this paper, we explore complex hypotheses relating to the cascade of effects that influence ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) mortality using structural equation modeling (SEM). We used annual census and plot data through six growing seasons after thinning and four growing seasons after burning from a replicated, operational-scale, completely randomized experiment conducted in northeastern Oregon, USA, as part of the national Fire and Fire Surrogate study. Treatments included thin, burn, thin followed by burn (thin+burn), and control. Burn and thin+burn treatments increased the proportion of dead trees while the proportion of dead trees declined or remained constant in thin and control units, although the density of dead trees was essentially unchanged with treatment. Most of the new mortality (96%) occurred within two years of treatment and was attributed to bark beetles. Bark beetle-caused tree mortality, while low overall, was greatest in thin + burn treatments. SEM results indicate that the probability of mortality of large-diameter ponderosa pine from bark beetles and wood borers was directly related to surface fire severity and bole charring, which in turn depended on fire intensity, which was greater in units where thinning increased large woody fuels. These results have implications when deciding among management options for restoring ecosystem health in similar ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir forests. ?? 2009 by the Ecological Society of America.
Additional publication details
Delayed conifer mortality after fuel reduction treatments: Interactive effects of fuel, fire intensity, and bark beetles