Objective: Our purpose was to characterize vegetation compositional patterns, tree regeneration, and plant diversity, and their relationships to landscape context, topography, and light availability across the margins of four stand-replacing subalpine burns.
Location: Four 1977 to 1978 burns east of the Continental Divide in Colorado: the Ouzel burn, a burn near Kenosha Pass, the Badger Mountain burn, and the Maes Creek burn.
Methods: Vegetation and environmental factors were sampled in 200 0.01-ha plots on transects crossing burn edges, and stratified by elevation. We utilized dissimilarity indices, mixed-effects models, and randomization tests to assess relationships between vegetation and environment.
Results: Three decades after wildfire, plant communities exhibited pronounced compositional shifts across burn edges. Tree regeneration decreased with increasing elevation and distance into burn interiors; concomitant increases in forbs and graminoids were linked to greater light availability. Richness was roughly doubled in high-severity burn interiors due to the persistence of a suite of native species occurring primarily in this habitat. Richness rose with distance into burns, but declined with increasing elevation. Only three of 188 plant species were non-native; these were widespread, naturalized species that comprised <1% total cover.
Conclusions: These subalpine wildfires generated considerable, persistent increases in plant species richness at local and landscape scales, and a diversity of plant communities. The findings suggest that fire suppression in such systems must lead to reduced diversity. Concerns about post-fire invasion by exotic plants appear unwarranted in high-elevation wilderness settings.