Ecological restoration of Southwestern ponderosa pine ecosystems: A broad perspective

Craig D. Allen, Melissa Savage, Donald A. Falk, Kieran F. Suckling, Thomas W. Swetnam, Todd Schulke, Peter B. Stacey, Penelope Morgan, Martos Hoffman, Jon T. Klingel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

742 Scopus citations


The purpose of this paper is to promote a broad and flexible perspective on ecological restoration of Southwestern (U.S.) ponderosa pine forests. Ponderosa pine forests in the region have been radically altered by Euro-American land uses, including livestock grazing, fire suppression, and logging. Dense thickets of young trees now abound, old-growth and biodiversity have declined, and human and ecological communities are increasingly vulnerable to destructive crown fires. A consensus has emerged that it is urgent to restore more natural conditions to these forests. Efforts to restore Southwestern forests will require extensive projects employing varying combinations of young-tree thinning and reintroduction of low-intensity fires. Treatments must be flexible enough to recognize and accommodate: high levels of natural heterogeneity; dynamic ecosystems; wildlife and other biodiversity considerations; scientific uncertainty; and the challenges of on-the-ground implementation. Ecological restoration should reset ecosystem trends toward an envelope of "natural variability," including the reestablishment of natural processes. Reconstructed historic reference conditions are best used as general guides rather than rigid restoration prescriptions. In the long term, the best way to align forest conditions to track ongoing climate changes is to restore fire, which naturally correlates with current climate. Some stands need substantial structural manipulation (thinning) before fire can safely be reintroduced. In other areas, such as large wilderness and roadless areas, fire alone may suffice as the main tool of ecological restoration, recreating the natural interaction of structure and process. Impatience, overreaction to crown fire risks, extractive economics, or hubris could lead to widespread application of highly intrusive treatments that may further damage forest ecosystems. Investments in research and monitoring of restoration treatments are essential to refine restoration methods. We support the development and implementation of a diverse range of scientifically viable restoration approaches in these forests, suggest principles for ecologically sound restoration that immediately reduce crown fire risk and incrementally return natural variability and resilience to Southwestern forests, and present ecological perspectives on several forest restoration approaches.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1418-1433
Number of pages16
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2002


  • Anthropogenic change
  • Ecological restoration
  • Ecosystem management
  • Fire suppression effects
  • Forest restoration programs
  • Natural range of variation
  • Ponderosa pine forests
  • Reference conditions
  • Southwestern United States

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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