Fire-mediated pathways of stand development in Douglas-fir/ western hemlock forests of the Pacific Northwest, USA

TitleFire-mediated pathways of stand development in Douglas-fir/ western hemlock forests of the Pacific Northwest, USA
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsTepley, AJ
Secondary AuthorsSwanson, FJ
Tertiary AuthorsSpies, TA
Start Page1729
Keywordsmixed-severity fire, technical reports and journal articles

Forests dominated by Douglas-fir and western hemlock in the Pacific Northwest of the United States have strongly influenced concepts and policy concerning old-growth forest conservation. Despite the attention to their old-growth characteristics, a tendency remains to view their disturbance ecology in relatively simple terms, emphasizing infrequent, stand-replacing (SR) fire and an associated linear pathway toward development of those old-growth characteristics. This study uses forest stand- and age-structure data from 124 stands in the central western Cascades of Oregon to construct a conceptual model of stand development under the mixed-severity fire regime that has operated extensively in this region. Hierarchical clustering of variables describing the age distributions of shade-intolerant and shade-tolerant species identified six groups, representing different influences of fire frequency and severity on stand development. Douglas-fir trees > 400 years old were found in 84% of stands, yet only 18% of these stands (15% overall) lack evidence of fire since the establishment of these old trees, whereas 73% of all stands show evidence of at least one non-stand-replacing (NSR) fire. Differences in fire frequency and severity have contributed to multiple development pathways and associated variation in contemporary stand structure and the successional roles of the major tree species. Shade-intolerant species form a single cohort following SR fire, or up to four cohorts per stand in response to recurring NSR fires that left living trees at densities up to 45 trees/ha. Where the surviving trees persist at densities of 60-65 trees/ha, the postfire cohort is composed only of shade-tolerant species. This study reveals that fire history and the development of old-growth forests in this region are more complex than characterized in current stand-development models, with important implications for maintaining existing old-growth forests and restoring stands subject to timber management.