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Historical and contemporary geographic data reveal complex spatial and temporal responses of vegetation to climate and land stewardship

July 16, 2013

Vegetation and land-cover changes are not always directional but follow complex trajectories over space and time, driven by changing anthropogenic and abiotic conditions. We present a multi-observational approach to land-change analysis that addresses the complex geographic and temporal variability of vegetation changes related to climate and land use. Using land-ownership data as a proxy for land-use practices, multitemporal land-cover maps, and repeat photography dating to the late 19th century, we examine changing spatial and temporal distributions of two vegetation types with high conservation value in the southwestern United States: grasslands and riparian vegetation. In contrast to many reported vegetation changes, notably shrub encroachment in desert grasslands, we found an overall increase in grassland area and decline of xeroriparian and riparian vegetation. These observed change patterns were neither temporally directional nor spatially uniform over the landscape. Historical data suggest that long-term vegetation changes coincide with broad climate fluctuations while fine-scale patterns are determined by land-management practices. In some cases, restoration and active management appear to weaken the effects of climate on vegetation; therefore, if land managers in this region act in accord with on-going directional changes, the current drought and associated ecological reorganization may provide an opportunity to achieve desired restoration endpoints.

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