Fuel Treatments & Effects
One goal of fuels treatments is to limit potential fire behavior by reducing overstory tree density, but this may precipitate regeneration, which contributes to increasing potential fire behavior over time. To understand factors that influence tree regeneration in treated stands, we compared abundance of advance and post treatment regeneration in 5–14-year-old thinning and mastication treatments covering approximately 2600 ha within two National Forests in Colorado, U.S.A. The study sites were dominated by two species with complimentary regeneration niches. Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Douglas ex P. Lawson & C. Lawson) is less shade tolerant, but more fire and drought resistant than Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco). We considered three critical features of the post treatment environment: species composition, forest structure (especially density), and site characteristics. Regeneration densities at the plot level varied considerably: 37% of the plots had no regeneration, while 15% had more than double the average density. High-density areas tended to occur in moist sites, mostly on north aspects that were dominated by Douglas-fir in the overstory. These areas are where wildfire mitigation benefits will likely deteriorate most rapidly. The vast majority (69%) of all regeneration was Douglas-fir. 31% of all regeneration occurred post treatment. In this group, ponderosa pine abundance was positively related to time since treatment but Douglas-fir was not, suggesting a stronger positive effect of treatment for ponderosa pine, although Douglas-fir was still more abundant. This is likely because treatments reduced the seed source for Douglas-fir more than for ponderosa pine while reducing total overstory density to create conditions that met the regeneration requirements of this shade intolerant species. Advanced regeneration was common throughout the study area, consisting of nearly 80% Douglas-fir and only 13% ponderosa pine. Although the abundance of advance regeneration decreased over time since treatment, likely due to mortality given that we encountered few sapling-sized trees, surviving trees reduce treatment longevity and have the potential for subsequent growth release and contribution to fuel hazard development. Conifer regeneration did not vary between mastication and thinning treatments. The impact of regeneration on treatment longevity was highly variable at smaller-than-stand scales. On the Colorado Front Range, moist sites with low overstory density and mature Douglas-fir to provide a seed source are where treatment effectiveness is likely to degrade most rapidly. These areas with abundant regeneration may be best left untreated, or managers should anticipate the need to re-treat them more frequently.