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Climate and fire impacts on tree recruitment in mixed conifer forests in Northwestern Mexico and California

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Frequent-fire forests were once heterogeneous at multiple spatial scales, which contributed to their resilience to severe fire. While many studies have characterized historical spatial patterns in frequent-fire forests, fewer studies have investigated their temporal dynamics. We investigated the influences of fire and climate on the timing of conifer recruitment in old-growth Jeffrey pine-mixed conifer forests in the Sierra San Pedro Martir (SSPM) and the eastern slope of Sierra Nevada. Additionally, we evaluated the impacts of fire exclusion and recent climate change on recruitment levels using statistical models with realized as well as fire suppression and climate change free counterfactual scenarios. Excessive soil drying from anthropogenic climate change resulted in diminished recruitment in the SSPM but not in the Sierra Nevada. Longer fire-free intervals attributable to fire suppression and exclusion resulted in greater rates of recruitment across all sites but was particularly pronounced in the Sierra Nevada where suppression began > 100 years ago and recruitment was 28 times higher than the historical fire return interval scenario. This demonstrates the profound impact of fire's removal on tree recruitment in Sierra Nevada forests even in the context of recent climate change. Tree recruitment at the SSPM coincided with the early Twentieth Century North American Pluvial, as well as a fire quiescent period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Episodic recruitment occurred in the SSPM with no ‘average’ recruitment over the last three centuries. We found that temporal heterogeneity, in conjunction with spatial heterogeneity, are critical components of frequent-fire adapted forests. Episodic recruitment could be a desirable characteristic of frequent-fire adapted forests and this might be more amenable to climate change impacts that forecast more variable precipitation patterns in the future. One key to this outcome would be for frequent-fire to continue to shape these forests versus continued emphasis on fire suppression in California.

S.L. Stephens; Z.L. Steel; B.M. Collins; D.L. Fry; S.J. Gill; H. Rivera-Huerta; C.N. Skinner

Stephens SL, Steel ZL, Collins BM, Fry DL, Gill SJ, Rivera-Huerta H, Skinner CN. Climate and fire impacts on tree recruitment in mixed conifer forests in Northwestern Mexico and California. Ecological Applications [Internet]. 2023 . Available from: