Recovery after fire
Disturbances are key drivers of forest ecosystem dynamics, and forests are well adapted to their natural disturbance regimes. However, as a result of climate change, disturbance frequency is expected to increase in the future in many regions. It is not yet clear how such changes might affect forest ecosystems, and which mechanisms contribute to (current and future) disturbance resilience. We studied a 6364-ha landscape in the western Cascades of Oregon, USA, to investigate how patches of remnant old-growth trees (as one important class of biological legacies) affect the resilience of forest ecosystems to disturbance. Using the spatially explicit, individual-based, forest landscape model iLand, we analyzed the effect of three different levels of remnant patches (0%, 12%, and 24% of the landscape) on 500-year recovery trajectories after a large, high-severity wildfire. In addition, we evaluated how three different levels of fire frequency modulate the effects of initial legacies. We found that remnant live trees enhanced the recovery of total ecosystem carbon (TEC) stocks after disturbance, increased structural complexity of forest canopies, and facilitated the recolonization of late-seral species (LSS). Legacy effects were most persistent for indicators of species composition (still significant 500 years after disturbance), while TEC (i.e., a measure of ecosystem functioning) was least affected, with no significant differences among legacy scenarios after 236 years. Compounding disturbances were found to dampen legacy effects on all indicators, and higher initial legacy levels resulted in elevated fire severity in the second half of the study period. Overall, disturbance frequency had a stronger effect on ecosystem properties than the initial level of remnant old-growth trees. A doubling of the historically observed fire frequency to a mean fire return interval of 131 years reduced TEC by 10.5% and lowered the presence of LSS on the landscape by 18.1% on average, demonstrating that an increase in disturbance frequency (a potential climate change effect) may considerably alter the structure, composition, and functioning of forest landscapes. Our results indicate that live tree legacies are an important component of disturbance resilience, underlining the potential of retention forestry to address challenges in ecosystem management.