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The role of fire in riparian zones of the northern Rocky Mountains

Author(s): Elaine Kennedy Sutherland, Kevin S. McKelvey
Year Published: 2002

While the importance of riparian systems in the northern Rocky Mountains as sources of productivity and diversity is recognized, there is little information about the interaction between pattern and process. To sustain these areas, we need to understand the characteristics of disturbance processes and how they result in patterns in these systems. There is mounting evidence that simply protecting riparian areas from fire and other disturbances results in unsustainable riparian conditions and deterioration of habitat for wildlife. Recent high-intensity fires, which in the past were probably uncharacteristic of the upland vegetation surrounding riparian zones, can result in soil erosion and sediment loading that can damage aquatic systems. However, low-intensity fires play an important role in determining composition and structure in upland and streamside vegetation, and consequently in contribution of vegetation debris to the aquatic system. Without low-intensity fire, uplands and streamsides succeed to shade-tolerant coniferous species, with consequently reduced dominance or loss of early-successional deciduous trees and shrubs. These altered conditions can have important consequences for habitats of terrestrial and aquatic fauna.

Citation: Sutherland, Elaine K.; McKelvey, Kevin 2002. The role of fire in riparian zones of the northern Rocky Mountains. In: Ford, W. Mark; Russell, Kevin R.; Moorman, Christopher E., eds. Proceedings: the role of fire for nongame wildlife management and community restoration: traditional uses and new directions. Gen. Tech. Rep. GTR-NE-288. Newtown Square, PA: USDA Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station. p. 144.
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - Second Order, Vegetation, Fire History
Ecosystem(s): Riparian woodland/shrubland
Document Type: Conference Proceedings, Technical Report or White Paper
NRFSN number: 11137
FRAMES RCS number: 10521
Record updated: Mar 19, 2018