Drought is an important stressor in forest ecosystems that can influence tree vigor and survival. In the U.S., forest managers use two primary management techniques to promote resistance and resilience to drought: prescribed fire and mechanical thinning. Generally applied to reduce fuels and fire hazard, treatments may also reduce competition for resources that may improve tree-growth and reduce mortality during drought. A recent severe and prolonged drought in California provided a natural experiment to investigate tree-growth responses to fuel treatments and climatic stress. We assessed tree-growth from 299 ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) in treated and untreated stands during severe drought from 2012 to 2015 in the mixed-conifer forests of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area (WNRA) in northern California. The treatment implemented at WNRA removed 34% of live basal area through mechanical thinning with a subsequent pile burning of residual fuels. Tree-growth was positively associated with crown ratio and negatively associated with competition and a 1-year lag of climate water deficit, an index of drought. Douglas-fir generally had higher annual growth than ponderosa pine, although factors affecting growth were the same for both species. Drought resistance, expressed as the ratio between mean growth during drought and mean growth pre-drought, was higher in treated stands compared to untreated stands during both years of severe drought (2014 and 2015) for ponderosa pine but only one year (2014) for Douglas-fir. Thinning improved drought resistance, but tree size, competition and species influenced this response. On-going thinning treatments focused on fuels and fire hazard reduction are likely to be effective at promoting growth and greater drought resistance in dry mixed-conifer forests. Given the likelihood of future droughts, land managers may choose to implement similar treatments to reduce potential impacts.
Additional publication details
|Publication Subtype||Journal Article|
|Title||Thinning, tree-growth, and resistance to multi-year drought in a mixed-conifer forest of northern California|
|Series title||Forest Ecology and Management|
|Contributing office(s)||Western Ecological Research Center|