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Landscape Heterogeneity and Disturbance Interactions in a Subalpine Watershed in Northern Colorado, USA

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Three major disturbances affect subalpine forests in the Rocky Mountains: blowdown, insect outbreaks, and fire. These disturbances may influence one another temporally and spatially, creating a mosaic of disturbance patches. In 1997, a severe windstorm blew down trees on over 10,000 ha of subalpine forest in northern Colorado. Did previous disturbances influence the spatial pattern of blowdown in a representative part of the blowdown in the Middle Fork Elk River watershed? Dendrochronological evidence and a geographic information system were used to reconstruct the disturbance history, and the relationship between disturbance history (i.e., patch age) and the 1997 blowdown was examined. The fire regime varies temporally and spatially, with an area-weighted mean fire interval/fire rotation of 108 to 195 years. Stand-replacing fires appear to have had the most impact on the fire regime, but evidence of non-stand-replacing fires was also found. South-facing, lower-elevation slopes were the settings most likely to burn. Low-severity spruce-beetle disturbance was found in the mid-1700s and mid- to late 1800s, possibly related to regional outbreaks. Sheep-grazing and fire suppression may have influenced tree-regeneration and fire-frequency patterns. Each disturbance event occurred with varying severity across the landscape, influenced, in part, by the patterns of severity of previous disturbances. Patch age contributed to the pattern of the 1997 blowdown, but the relationship is complicated. The vegetation mosaic influenced spatial patterns of blowdown, resulting in new complexity and maintaining landscape heterogeneity.
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Keywords: blowdown; disturbance interactions; fire ecology; subalpine forest

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Geography, University of Wyoming

Publication date: 2003-12-01

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