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Healthy forests and woodlands in the western United States provide many important benefits, including providing habitat for wildlife, forage for livestock, and clean water for fish and human use. Yet climate change and other stressors, from wildfires and insect attacks to severe droughts, are causing unprecedented tree die offs across the region, threatening many of these ecosystem services. Following these mortality episodes, a key question becomes: how will these ecosystems recover? In some cases, forests eventually return to their pre-disturbance states, growing back the same species and creating the same kind of ecological communities as before. However, there are increasing observations of ecosystems that are not recovering. For example, wildfires can damage the soil, creating treeless patches so large that seeds cannot recolonize. In other cases, the climate can become too hot or dry to support the previous forest community. If climate and environmental conditions are not favorable for recovery, the forest may be replaced by an entirely different type of ecosystem, such as shrubland or grassland. When this occurs, important ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration may be compromised or lost altogether.
In this project, researchers will use computer modeling to simulate ecosystem processes to study how climate, wildfire, and management may influence the trajectory of future forests in the southwestern U.S. This project will examine in detail how different sources of widespread tree mortality, such as fire and drought, might lead to different kinds of forests across the Southwest. The project team will design these modeling experiments based on feedback from a working group of scientists and resource managers across the Southwest to ensure the results will be useful in guiding regional forest recovery in the future.