Disturbance, tree mortality, and implications for contemporary regional forest change in the Pacific Northwest

TitleDisturbance, tree mortality, and implications for contemporary regional forest change in the Pacific Northwest
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsReilly, MJ
Secondary AuthorsSpies, TA
JournalForest Ecology and Management
Start Page102
Keywordsdisturbance, insects and fire, pacific northwest, regional forest dynamics, technical reports and journal articles, tree mortality

Tree mortality is an important demographic process and primary driver of forest dynamics, yet there are relatively few plot-based studies that explicitly quantify mortality and compare the relative contribution of endogenous and exogenous disturbances at regional scales. We used repeated observations on 289,390 trees in 3673 1 ha plots on U.S. Forest Service lands in Oregon and Washington to compare distributions of mortality rates among natural disturbances and vegetation zones from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, a period characterized by drought, insect outbreaks, and large wildfires. Endogenous disturbances (e.g. pathogens, insects) were pervasive but operated at relatively low levels of mortality (<2.5%/yr) that rarely exceeded 5%/yr. Exogenous disturbances (e.g. fire, wind, landslides, avalanches) were less common and operated mostly at intermediate levels of mortality (5–25%/yr) indicative of partial-stand-replacement events. Stand-replacing mortality rates (⩾25%/yr) comprised a third of all exogenous disturbance events, occurring almost exclusively in fires. Fires were rare in wet vegetation zones and most rates were <2.5%/yr and associated with endogenous processes. Mortality rates in dry vegetation zones revealed a different set of dynamics including a more variable role of background mortality and greater proportions of mortality associated with fire and insects at partial- and stand-replacing levels. Mortality rates in early and middle stages of stand development were low compared to published rates, but rates >1%/yr in over half of the plots in late and old-growth stages corroborate previous findings of elevated mortality during the same period and indicate the potential for pervasive structural change across all vegetation zones. Partial- and stand-replacing fire were associated with most mortality, but affected a relatively small proportion of dry vegetation zones (3.1–7.1% and 2.1–5.1%, respectively). These disturbances have likely affected regional biodiversity through the creation of early seral habitat, increased within-stand heterogeneity, and restored some aspects of historical fire regimes, but there is a need to better understand corresponding structural and compositional changes. We demonstrate the variability in the drivers, magnitude, and extent of mortality across a biophysically diverse region and highlight the need to incorporate and characterize the effects of mortality at intermediate levels to develop a more comprehensive understanding of regional forest dynamics.