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Landscape‐scale restoration minimizes tree growth vulnerability to 21st century drought in a dry forest

October 17, 2020

Increasing aridity is a challenge for forest managers and reducing stand density to minimize competition is a recognized strategy to mitigate drought impacts on growth. In many dry forests, the most widespread and common forest management programs currently being implemented focus on restoration of historical stand structures, primarily to minimize fire risk and enhance watershed function. The implications of these restoration projects for drought vulnerability are not well understood. Here, we examined how planned restoration treatments in the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, the largest forest restoration project in the United States, would alter landscape‐scale patterns of forest growth and drought vulnerability throughout the 21st century. Using drought‐growth relationships developed within the landscape, we considered a suite of climate and treatment scenarios and estimated average forest growth and the proportion of years with extremely low growth as a measure of vulnerability to long‐term decline. Climatic shifts projected for this landscape include higher temperatures and shifting seasonal precipitation that promotes lower soil moisture availability in the early growing season and greater hot‐dry stress, conditions negatively associated with tree growth. However, drought severity and the magnitude of future growth declines was moderated by the thinning treatments. Compared to historical conditions, proportional growth in mid‐century declines by ~40% if thinning ceases or continues at the status quo pace. By comparison, proportional growth declines by only 20% if the Four Forest Restoration Initiative treatments are fully implemented, and < 10% if stands are thinned even more intensively than currently planned. Furthermore, restoration treatments resulted in dramatically fewer years with extremely low growth in the future, a recognized precursor to forest decline and eventual tree mortality. Benefits from density reduction for mitigating drought‐induced growth declines are more apparent in mid‐century and under RCP4.5 than under RCP8.5 at the end of the century. Future climate is inherently uncertain, and our results only reflect the climate projections from the representative suite of models examined. Nevertheless, these results indicate that forest restoration projects designed for other objectives also have substantial benefits for minimizing future drought vulnerability in dry forests and provide additional incentive to accelerate the pace of restoration.

Publication Year 2021
Title Landscape‐scale restoration minimizes tree growth vulnerability to 21st century drought in a dry forest
DOI 10.1002/eap.2238
Authors John B. Bradford, Caitlin M. Andrews, Marcos D. Robles, Lisa A. McCauley, Travis Woolley, Robert Marshall
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Applications
Index ID 70216389
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center