Determining whether forest landscapes can maintain their resilience to fire – that is, their ability to rebound and sustain – given rapid climate change and increasing fire activity is a pressing challenge throughout the American West. Many western forests are well adapted to fire, and even subalpine forests that experience infrequent, high-severity fires historically recovered long before they burned again. However, current rates of warming portend a mismatch between historical and future fire regimes. How forest changes will unfold, whether forest resilience will be compromised and whether tipping points could be surpassed during this century remain largely unresolved. Resilient landscapes are a fundamental goal of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, but understanding how to promote them has proven challenging. Fire and forest managers would benefit from knowing how to assess forest resilience; where, when and why resilience may be lost; and how management could promote resilience. Our project aimed to quantify multiple dimensions of resilience for Northern Rocky Mountain forests and to develop widely applicable methods for operationalizing forest and landscape resilience concepts.
Our studies addressed three questions: (1) How and why might warming climate and changing fire regimes push forest stands over a tipping point? (2) Where and when might management activities enhance or erode landscape resilience given projected changes in climate and fire activity? (3) How do stand and landscape indicators of resilience scale to the Northern Rockies ecoregion, and what geographical areas are most likely to be vulnerable or resilient to changing climate and fire regimes?