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Where forest may not return in the western United States

December 7, 2022

Droughts that are hotter, more frequent, and last longer; pest outbreaks that are more extensive and more common; and fires that are more frequent, more extensive, and perhaps more severe have raised concern that forests in the western United States may not return once disturbed by one or more of these agents. Numerous field-based studies have been undertaken to better understand forest response to these changing disturbance regimes. Meta-analyses of these studies provide broad guidelines on the biotic and abiotic factors that hinder forest recovery, but study-to-study differences in methods and objectives do not support estimation of the total extent of potentially impaired forest succession. In this research, we provide an estimate of the area of potentially impaired forest succession. The estimate was derived from modeling of an 18-year land cover and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) time series supported by an extensive ancillary dataset. We estimate an upper bound of approximately 3470 km2 of disturbed forest that may not return or reattain prior composition and structure. Based on the data used, fire appears to be the main disturbance agent of impaired forest succession, although climatic factors cannot be discounted. The numerous field studies routinely cite distal seed sources as a factor that hinders forest recovery, and we estimate that 20 % of the upper bound estimate has no forest cover within a 4.4-ha neighborhood. Our upper bound estimate is about 0.5 % of the 2001 mapped extent of western United States forests. The estimate is cognizant of measurement and modeling uncertainties (i.e., upper bound) and uncertainties related to successional rates and trajectories (i.e., potential).

Publication Year 2023
Title Where forest may not return in the western United States
DOI 10.1016/j.ecolind.2022.109756
Authors James Wickham, Anne Neale, Kurt H. Riitters, Maliha Nash, Jon Dewitz, Suming Jin, Megan van Fossen, D Rosenbaum
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Indicators
Index ID 70239890
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center