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Yellowstone National Park Report

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Understanding succession following severe wildfire is increasingly important for forest managers in western North America and critical for anticipating the resilience of forested landscapes to changing environmental conditions. Successional trajectories set the stage for future carbon storage, abundance and distribution of fuels, and habitat for many species. Early successional forests are increasing throughout the West in response to greater fire activity, but few long-term studies have considered succession following stand-replacing wildfires over large areas. The size and heterogeneity of the 1988 Yellowstone fires created novel opportunities to study succession at an unprecedented scale following severe fire, and we have studied the consequences of these fires for >20 years. In 2012, we began a re-sampling effort in long-term vegetation plots within the area burned by the 1988 fires to answer three overarching questions: (1) Are stand structure and function beginning to converge twenty-five years after the Yellowstone Fires, and what mechanisms may contribute to convergence or divergence? Heterogeneity in forest structure was the rule after the 1988 fires, and postfire lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) densities ranged from zero to >500,000 trees/ha. The post-1988 cohort of lodgepole pine is reaching a time of critical transitions in structure and function. (2) Are plant community composition and species richness converging or diverging across gradients in local fire severity, post-fire lodgepole pine density, elevation and soil type a quarter-century after the 1988 fires? A central objective in our research has been to understand the relative influence of contingent factors (e.g., local fire severity) vs. deterministic factors (e.g., elevation, soils) on postfire ecosystem development, and how these influences may change through time. (3) How do canopy and surface fuels vary across the postfire landscape, and how will the variation in fuels influence potential fire behavior a quarter century post-fire? Field sampling was conducted for this third question during summer 2012, and data analyses and interpretation are in progress. Overall, results from the proposed study will enhance understanding of succession after one of the most notorious fires of the 20th century. Yellowstone’s postfire forests may serve as benchmarks for forests throughout the region and effective sentinels of change for the Rockies.