Forest carbon stocks and fluxes vary with forest age, and relationships with forest age are often used to estimate fluxes for regional or national carbon inventories. Two methods are commonly used to estimate forest age: observed tree age or time since a known disturbance. To clarify the relationships between tree age, time since disturbance and forest carbon storage and cycling, we examined stands of known disturbance history in three landscapes of the southern Rocky Mountains. Our objectives were to assess the similarity between carbon stocks and fluxes for these three landscapes that differed in climate and disturbance history, characterize the relationship between observed tree age and time since disturbance and quantify the predictive capability of tree age or time since disturbance on carbon stocks and fluxes. Carbon pools and fluxes were remarkably similar across the three landscapes, despite differences in elevation, climate, species composition, disturbance history, and forest age. Observed tree age was a poor predictor of time since disturbance. Maximum tree age overestimated time since disturbance for young forests and underestimated it for older forests. Carbon pools and fluxes were related to both tree age and disturbance history, but the relationships differed between these two predictors and were generally less variable for pools than for fluxes. Using tree age in a relationship developed with time since disturbance or vice versa increases errors in estimates of carbon stocks or fluxes. Little change in most carbon stocks and fluxes occurs after the first 100 years following stand-replacing disturbance, simplifying landscape scale estimates. We conclude that subalpine forests in the Central Rocky Mountains can be treated as a single forest type for the purpose of assessment and modeling of carbon, and that the critical period for change in carbon is < 100 years.
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