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Open Access Research

Variation in tree mortality and regeneration affect forest carbon recovery following fuel treatments and wildfire in the Lake Tahoe Basin, California, USA

Chris H Carlson1*, Solomon Z Dobrowski1 and Hugh D Safford23

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Forest Management, University of Montana, Missoula, MT, 59812, USA

2 USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region, Vallejo, CA, 94592, USA

3 Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, CA, 95616, USA

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Carbon Balance and Management 2012, 7:7  doi:10.1186/1750-0680-7-7

Published: 28 June 2012

Abstract

Background

Forest fuel treatments have been proposed as tools to stabilize carbon stocks in fire-prone forests in the Western U.S.A. Although fuel treatments such as thinning and burning are known to immediately reduce forest carbon stocks, there are suggestions that these losses may be paid back over the long-term if treatments sufficiently reduce future wildfire severity, or prevent deforestation. Although fire severity and post-fire tree regeneration have been indicated as important influences on long-term carbon dynamics, it remains unclear how natural variability in these processes might affect the ability of fuel treatments to protect forest carbon resources. We surveyed a wildfire where fuel treatments were put in place before fire and estimated the short-term impact of treatment and wildfire on aboveground carbon stocks at our study site. We then used a common vegetation growth simulator in conjunction with sensitivity analysis techniques to assess how predicted timescales of carbon recovery after fire are sensitive to variation in rates of fire-related tree mortality, and post-fire tree regeneration.

Results

We found that fuel reduction treatments were successful at ameliorating fire severity at our study site by removing an estimated 36% of aboveground biomass. Treated and untreated stands stored similar amounts of carbon three years after wildfire, but differences in fire severity were such that untreated stands maintained only 7% of aboveground carbon as live trees, versus 51% in treated stands. Over the long-term, our simulations suggest that treated stands in our study area will recover baseline carbon storage 10–35 years more quickly than untreated stands. Our sensitivity analysis found that rates of fire-related tree mortality strongly influence estimates of post-fire carbon recovery. Rates of regeneration were less influential on recovery timing, except when fire severity was high.

Conclusions

Our ability to predict the response of forest carbon resources to anthropogenic and natural disturbances requires models that incorporate uncertainty in processes important to long-term forest carbon dynamics. To the extent that fuel treatments are able to ameliorate tree mortality rates or prevent deforestation resulting from wildfire, our results suggest that treatments may be a viable strategy to stabilize existing forest carbon stocks.

Keywords:
Wildfire; Fuel reduction treatment; Thinning; Forest carbon; Tree mortality; Tree regeneration; Sensitivity analysis; Forest Vegetation Simulator