Latent resilience in ponderosa pine forest: effects of resumed frequent fire


  • Corresponding Editor: D. S. Schimel.


Ecological systems often exhibit resilient states that are maintained through negative feedbacks. In ponderosa pine forests, fire historically represented the negative feedback mechanism that maintained ecosystem resilience; fire exclusion reduced that resilience, predisposing the transition to an alternative ecosystem state upon reintroduction of fire. We evaluated the effects of reintroduced frequent wildfire in unlogged, fire-excluded, ponderosa pine forest in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana, USA. Initial reintroduction of fire in 2003 reduced tree density and consumed surface fuels, but also stimulated establishment of a dense cohort of lodgepole pine, maintaining a trajectory toward an alternative state. Resumption of a frequent fire regime by a second fire in 2011 restored a low-density forest dominated by large-diameter ponderosa pine by eliminating many regenerating lodgepole pines and by continuing to remove surface fuels and small-diameter lodgepole pine and Douglas-fir that established during the fire suppression era. Our data demonstrate that some unlogged, fire-excluded, ponderosa pine forests possess latent resilience to reintroduced fire. A passive model of simply allowing lightning-ignited fires to burn appears to be a viable approach to restoration of such forests.