Vegetation type conversion in the US Southwest: frontline observations and management responses

Christopher H. Guiterman, Rachel M. Gregg, Laura A.E. Marshall, Jill J. Beckmann, Phillip J. van Mantgem, Donald A. Falk, Jon E. Keeley, Anthony C. Caprio, Jonathan D. Coop, Paula J. Fornwalt, Collin Haffey, R. Keala Hagmann, Stephen T. Jackson, Ann M. Lynch, Ellis Q. Margolis, Christopher Marks, Marc D. Meyer, Hugh Safford, Alexandra Dunya Syphard, Alan TaylorCraig Wilcox, Dennis Carril, Carolyn A.F. Enquist, David Huffman, Jose Iniguez, Nicole A. Molinari, Christina Restaino, Jens T. Stevens

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Background: Forest and nonforest ecosystems of the western United States are experiencing major transformations in response to land-use change, climate warming, and their interactive effects with wildland fire. Some ecosystems are transitioning to persistent alternative types, hereafter called “vegetation type conversion” (VTC). VTC is one of the most pressing management issues in the southwestern US, yet current strategies to intervene and address change often use trial-and-error approaches devised after the fact. To better understand how to manage VTC, we gathered managers, scientists, and practitioners from across the southwestern US to collect their experiences with VTC challenges, management responses, and outcomes. Results: Participants in two workshops provided 11 descriptive case studies and 61 examples of VTC from their own field observations. These experiences demonstrate the extent and complexity of ecological reorganization across the region. High-severity fire was the predominant driver of VTC in semi-arid coniferous forests. By a large margin, these forests converted to shrubland, with fewer conversions to native or non-native herbaceous communities. Chaparral and sagebrush areas nearly always converted to non-native grasses through interactions among land use, climate, and fire. Management interventions in VTC areas most often attempted to reverse changes, although we found that these efforts cover only a small portion of high-severity burn areas undergoing VTC. Some areas incurred long (>10 years) observational periods prior to initiating interventions. Efforts to facilitate VTC were rare, but could cover large spatial areas. Conclusions: Our findings underscore that type conversion is a common outcome of high-severity wildland fire in the southwestern US. Ecosystem managers are frontline observers of these far-reaching and potentially persistent changes, making their experiences valuable in further developing intervention strategies and research agendas. As its drivers increase with climate change, VTC appears increasingly likely in many ecological contexts and may require management paradigms to transition as well. Approaches to VTC potentially include developing new models of desired conditions, the use of experimentation by managers, and broader implementation of adaptive management strategies. Continuing to support and develop science-manager partnerships and peer learning groups will help to shape our response to ongoing rapid ecological transformations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number6
JournalFire Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Adaptive management
  • Alternative stable states
  • Community reorganization
  • Forest management
  • High-severity fire
  • Post-fire recovery
  • Resilience
  • Vegetation type conversion
  • Wildland fire

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)


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