The nature of the beast: examining climate adaptation options in forests with stand-replacing fire regimes


Halofsky, J.S., D.C. Donato, J.F. Franklin, J.E. Halofsky, D.L. Peterson, and B.J. Harvey. 2018. The nature of the beast: examining climate adaptation options in forests with stand-replacing fire regimes. Ecosphere 9(3):e02140.10.1002/ecs2.2140.


Building resilience to natural disturbances is a key to managing forests for adaptation to climate change. To date, most climate adaptation guidance has focused on recommendations for frequent-fire forests, leaving few published guidelines for forests that naturally experience infrequent, stand-replacing wildfires. Because most such forests are inherently resilient to stand-replacing disturbances, and burn severity mosaics are largely indifferent to manipulations of stand structure (i.e., weather-driven, rather than fuel-driven fire regimes), we posit that pre-fire climate adaptation options are generally fewer in these regimes relative to others. Outside of areas of high human value, stand-scale fuel treatments commonly emphasized for other forest types would undermine many of the functions, ecosystem services, and other values for which these forests are known. For stand-replacing disturbance regimes, we propose that (1) managed wildfire use (e.g., allowing natural fires to burn under moderate conditions) can be a useful strategy as in other forest types, but likely confers fewer benefits to long-term forest resilience and climate adaptation, while carrying greater socio-ecological risks; (2) reasoned fire exclusion (i.e., the suppression component of a managed wildfire program) can be an appropriate strategy to maintain certain ecosystem conditions and services in the face of change, being more ecologically justifiable in long-interval fire regimes and producing fewer of the negative consequences than in frequent-fire regimes; (3) low-risk predisturbance adaptation options are few, but the most promising approaches emphasize fundamental conservation biology principles to create a safe operating space for the system to respond to change (e.g., maintaining heterogeneity across scales and minimizing stressors); and (4) post-disturbance conditions are the primary opportunity to implement adaptation strategies (such as protecting live tree legacies and testing new regeneration methods), providing crucial learning opportunities. This approach will provide greater context and understanding of these systems for ecologists and resource managers, stimulate future development of adaptation strategies, and illustrate why public expectations for climate adaptation in these forests will differ from those for frequent-fire forests.