Mixed-conifer forests of central Oregon : structure, composition, history of establishment, and growth Public Deposited



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  • The structure and composition of mixed-conifer forest (MCF) in central Oregon has been altered by fire exclusion and logging. The resulting increased density, spatial contagion, and loss of fire resistant trees decrease the resiliency of this ecosystem to fire, drought, and insects. The historical and current composition and structure of MCF are characterized by steep environmental gradients and a complex mixed-severity fire regime. This inherent variation makes it difficult to determine the magnitude of anthropogenic effects and set objectives for restoration and management. As a result, there is a lack of consensus regarding how MCF should be managed and restored across the landscape. My primary research objectives were to: (1) Characterize the current structure and composition of MCF and how these vary with environmental setting; and (2) Characterize establishment and tree growth patterns in MCF in different environmental settings. To address these objectives, I collected field data on structure and composition and increment cores across a range of environmental conditions in MCF of the eastern Cascades and Ochoco Mountains. I used cluster analysis to identify four stand types based on structure and composition in the eastern Cascades study area and four analogous types in the Ochoco Mountains study area. Variation in understory composition and the presence of large diameter shade tolerant species distinguish each type. Stand types occupied distinct environmental settings along a climatic gradient of increasing precipitation and elevation. At relatively dry PIPO sites understories were dominated by ponderosa pine. At wetter PIPO/PSME and PIPO ABGC sites understories were dominated by shade tolerant species, but ponderosa pine was dominant in the overstory. At the coolest and wettest PIPO/PSME/ABGC sites understories were dominated by grand fir and shade tolerant species were common in the overstory. In the eastern Cascades current density of all live trees and snags was 432, 461, 570, 372 trees per hectare (TPH) for the four stand types identified. Stand types in the drier Ochoco Mountains were currently less dense at 279, 304, 212, and 307 TPH. Current MCF densities in both areas are 2-3 times higher than densities estimated for the late 19th and early 20th centuries from other studies in those two areas. Reconstruction of cuts in each stand type indicates that the density of large diameter ponderosa pine has been reduced by approximately 50% in all stand types in both study regions. Age histograms demonstrate that current density and composition of MCF stand types is a product of abrupt increases in tree establishment following fire exclusion in the late 19th century. The number of trees established increased after 1900 in all stand types, but the timing and composition of changes in establishment varied with climate. At dry PIPO sites increases in establishment were delayed until the 1920s and 1930s and were composed of ponderosa pine. At PIPO/PSME and PIPO/ABGC sites with intermediate precipitation, establishment was dominated by ponderosa pine prior to 1900, but after 1900 establishment was dominated by a large pulse of Douglas-fir and grand fir. At the wettest PIPO/PSME/ABGC there was less evidence of changes in structure and composition over time. My results indicate that compared to dry pine and dry-mixed conifer sites, relatively productive moist mixed-conifer sites were characterized by large changes in structure and composition. Such sites could be considered more ecologically altered by lack of fire than drier forest types that had high fire frequencies but slower rates of stand development and less plant community change. Radial growth patterns of cored ponderosa pines differed between the eastern Cascades and Ochoco Mountains. In the eastern Cascades mean growth rates and variance decreased during favorable climatic periods after 1900. This is likely related to increased competition, and provides evidence that current stand density lacks a temporal analog in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sensitivity of growth to climate and harvest suggest competition for water in the denser forest of the eastern Cascades, and indicates thinning will increase the diameter growth rate of large old pines. In the Ochoco Mountains, ponderosa pine tree growth was less responsive to climate prior to fire exclusion in the late 1800s, and growth did not respond to fire events. This suggests competition among trees was historically low in this region. After fire exclusion growth became more responsive to wet and dry climatic cycles, which may indicate that increased density and competition made trees more responsive to climate variability. Patterns of slow and fast growth appeared to differ between study regions and likely differ at the sub-regional scale. Further analysis of the relationship between growth and climate in different environmental settings is needed to distinguish where stand development has been modified by disruption of fire regimes.
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