Small-Scale Fires Key To Understanding Forest Structure

Boston, Mass. -- For 94 years, forest caretakers have restricted Mother Nature by suppressing forest fires. Now a Penn State geographer wants to know what the forests would have been like if we'd let them burn.

"I'm interested in how fire shapes the landscape. Resource managers are interested in restoring forests to what they were like before the arrival of Euroamericans," says R. Matthew Beaty, graduate student in geography. "To restore forests, we need to understand their natural variability."

What Beaty and Dr. Alan H. Taylor, associate professor of geography, are finding is that variation on a fairly local scale is important and that the environment, especially the topography, is key.

The researchers examined pairs of aerial photographs from 1941 and 1993, and noted significant changes in the Cub Creek Research Natural Area of the Lassen National Forest in Northern California. These changes are remarkable because the Cub Creek area has never been logged or grazed. The only human impact in the area has been fire suppression.

The watershed is very rugged with two ridges that run east and west from its headwaters. The researchers divided the area into three regions based on differences in topography.

"In the 20th century, fire suppression has changed the density and species diversity of these forests, but differently in each area. The controlling factor seems to be the direction that the slope faces," Beaty told attendees at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers today (March 29) in Boston. "A slope's direction influences species distributions and fire vulnerability because of microclimates."

Fire suppression began in 1905 and these forests which had widely spaced larger trees became closed forests, densely packed with smaller trees, saplings and seedlings. Fire suppression has also changed the forest composition from mostly pine, which are fire tolerant, to firs which ar

Contact: A'ndrea Elyse Messer
Penn State

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