Vegetation Dynamics Under Fire Exclusion and Logging in a Rocky Mountain Watershed, 1856 -1996

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Ecological Applications

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How have changes in land management practices affected vegetation patterns in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem? This question led us to develop a deterministic, successional, vegetation model to "turn back the clock" on a study area and assess how patterns in vegetation cover type and structure have changed through different periods of management. Our modeling spanned the closing decades of use by Native Americans, subsequent Euro-American settlement, and associated indirect methods of fire suppression, and more recent practices of fire exclusion and timber harvest. Model results were striking, indicating that the primary forest dynamic in the study area is not fragmentation of conifer forest by logging, but the transition from a fire-driven mosaic of grassland, shrubland, broadleaf forest, and mixed forest communities to a conifer-dominated landscape. Projections for conifer-dominated stands showed an increase in areal coverage from 15% of the study area in the mid-1800s to -50% by the mid-1990s. During the same period, projections for aspen-dominated stands showed a decline in coverage from 37% to 8%. Substantial acreage previously occupied by a variety of age classes has given way to extensive tracts of mature forest. Only 4% of the study area is currently covered by young stands, all of which are coniferous. While logging has replaced wildfire as a mechanism for cycling younger stands into the landscape, the locations, species constituents, patch sizes, and ecosystem dynamics associated with logging do not mimic those associated with fire. It is also apparent that the nature of these differences varies among biophysical settings, and that land managers might consider a biophysical class strategy for tailoring management goals and restoration efforts.