Post Settlement Changes in Natural Fire Regimes and Forest Structure: Ecological Restoration of Old-growth Ponderosa Pine Forests

Document Type

Contribution to Book

Journal/Book Title/Conference

Journal of Sustainable Forestry

Publication Date







Haworth Press

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Last Page



Heavy livestock grazing, logging, and fire exclusion associated with Euro-American settlement has brought about substantial changes in forest conditions in western forests. Thus, old-growth definitions based on current forest conditions may not be compatible with the natural conditions prevalent throughout the evolutionary history of western forest types. Detailed analysis of data from two study areas in the southwestern ponderosa pine type suggests that average tree densities have increased from as few as 23 trees per acre in presettlement times to as many as 851 trees per acre today. Associated with these increases in tree density are increases in canopy closure, vertical fuel continuity, and surface fuel loadings resulting in fire hazards over large areas never reached before settlement. In addition, fire exclusion and increased tree density has likely decreased tree vigor (increasing mortality from disease, insect, drought, etc.), herbaceous and shrub production, aesthetic values, water availability and runoff, and nutrient availability, and also changed soil characteristics and altered wildlife habitat. To remedy these problems and restore these forest ecosystems to more nearly natural conditions, and maintain a viable cohort of old age-class trees, it will be necessary to thin out most of the post-settlement trees, manually remove heavy fuels from the base of large, old trees, and reintroduce periodic burning.