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Fire history and composition of the subalpine forest of western Colorado during the Holocene

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Pollen and plant macrofossils from the Keystone Ironbog are used to document changes in species composition and the dynamics of the subalpine forest in western Colorado over the past 8000 years. Modern pollen spectra (particularly pollen influx), plant macrofossils, observations on modern species composition, and quantified densities and mean basal areas of forest trees are used to interpret the paleoecology of the forest. From 8000 to 2600 years ago the fen was surrounded by a subalpine forest. However, unlike the modern subalpine forest where Abies lasiocarpa (Hooker) Nuttall is slighlty more abundant than Picea engelmannii (Parry) Engelmann, these Holocene forests had a greater dominance of P. engelmannii, perhaps reflecting a summer wet climate like that of the modern southern Rocky Mountains and Colorado Plateau. Mesic conditions promoted a dense understory of Sphagnum moss, forbs, grasses, and shrubs which periodically burned with long (centennial) return-interval and stand-replacing fires. Populus tremuloides Michaux was the dominant successional forest tree 8000–6400 and 4400–2600 years ago, with Picea engelmannii and Abies lasiocarpa becoming reestablished within a couple hundred years. A subalpine meadow or grassland covered the fen for about 2000 years between 6400 and 4400 years ago. Over the past 2600 years a stable, non-successional Pinus contorta (Douglas) spp latifolia (Engelmann) Critchfield forest grew around the fen. This forest stand had a relatively sparse understory. The persistence of Pinus contorta at this elevation (2920 m) probably reflects a shift to drier climatic conditions, perhaps coupled with a change in fire regime to relatively frequent (decadal) surface fires. Following fire Pinus contorta became reestablished at least within 200 years, but the subalpine Picea engelmannii-Abies lasiocarpa forest never regenerated at this elevation
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Keywords: Abies lasiocarpa; Colorado; Picea engelmannii; Pinus contorta; Rocky Mountains; paleoecology; plant macrofossils; pollen; subalpine forest dynamics; succession

Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: Department of Geography, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287-0104, U.S.A.

Publication date: 1997-01-01

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