Management Responses to Vegetation Type Conversion Play Important Role in Southwest Forest Climate Adaptation

July 25, 2022
A large amount of smoke coming from a fire on a mountain range.

Recent research published in Fire Ecology, and partially funded by SW CASC, concludes that some southwestern ecosystems are experiencing persistent changes in vegetation type, referred to as vegetation type conversion (VTC), following large-scale disturbances such as high-severity wildland fire. The researchers sought to understand current land management responses to VTC to help inform future management decisions by convening workshops with managers, scientists, and practitioners. At the workshops, they collected 11 case studies and 61 examples of VTC from field observations of the participants. 

From these observations, the researchers identified that ecosystem managers were primarily using one of three management responses to VTC: reverse change, observe change or facilitate change. Reversing change involves returning an ecosystem to its pre-disturbance condition. This method can be implemented through removing vegetation that is encroaching on pre-disturbance species, for example. Managers that opted to observe change associated with VTC monitored the ecosystem and post-disturbance outcomes. This strategy was a way to make a plan for future management techniques. The researchers found that the least common management response to VTC was to facilitate ecosystem change. Land managers that implemented this strategy were directing a change toward an alternative state. Practices included planting vegetation that was more drought tolerant in areas that had previously been populated by less drought tolerant species. 

Catalysts of VTC are fueled by climate change making adaptable management strategies even more important. Ways for managers to potentially approach VTC include modeling future ecosystem conditions, utilizing experimentation within the ecosystems they work with, and implementing adaptive management strategies on a wider scale. The researchers encourage partnerships and peer-learning as ways to share knowledge about responses to ecosystem changes, especially as it becomes necessary for land management techniques to shift from ecosystem persistence to recovery efforts. Future adaptation will rely on collaboration and co-production among all stakeholders.