Are Wildfire Mitigation and Restoration of Historic Forest Structure Compatible? A Spatial Modeling Assessment

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Department 1

Environmental Studies


In response to catastrophic wildfires, wide-reaching forest management policies have been enacted in recent years, most notably the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003. A key premise underlying these policies is that fire suppression has resulted in denser forests than were present historically in some western forest types. Therefore, although reducing the threat of wildfire is the primary goal, forest managers commonly view fuel treatments as a means to restore historic forest structure in those forest types that are outside of their historic range of variation. This study evaluates where both wildfire mitigation and restoration of historic forest structure are potentially needed in the ponderosa pine–dominated montane forest zone of Boulder County, Colorado. Two spatial models were overlain: a model of potential fireline intensity and a model of historic fire frequency. The overlay was then aggregated by land management classes. Contrary to current assumptions, results of this study indicate that both wildfire mitigation and restoration of historic forest structure are needed in only a small part of the study area, primarily at low elevations. Furthermore, little of this land is located on Forest Service land where most of the current thinning projects are taking place. We question the validity of thinning as a means both to reduce the threat of wildfire and to restore historic forest structure in the absence of site-specific data collection on past and present landscape conditions.



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