The demise of fire and "mesophication" of forests in the eastern United States

Gregory J. Nowacki, Marc D. Abrams

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

548 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

A diverse array of fire-adapted plant communities once covered the eastern United States. European settlement greatly altered fire regimes, often increasing fire occurrence (e.g., in northern hardwoods) or substantially decreasing it (e.g., in tallgrass prairies). Notwithstanding these changes, fire suppression policies, beginning around the 1920s, greatly reduced fire throughout the East, with profound ecological consequences. Fire-maintained open lands converted to closed-canopy forests. As a result of shading, shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive plants began to replace heliophytic (sun-loving), fire-tolerant plants. A positive feedback cycle - which we term "mesophication" - ensued, wherebymicroenvironmental conditions (cool, damp, and shaded conditions; less flammable fuel beds) continually improve for shade-tolerant mesophytic species and deteriorate for shade-intolerant, fire-adapted species. Plant communities are undergoing rapid compositional and structural changes, some with no ecological antecedent. Stand-level species richness is declining, and will decline further, as numerous fire-adapted plants are replaced by a limited set of shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive species. As this process continues, the effort and cost required to restore fire-adapted ecosystems escalate rapidly.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)123-138
Number of pages16
JournalBioScience
Volume58
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 1 2008

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Eastern United States
shade
plant communities
Forests
plant community
fire suppression
fire regime
forest canopy
hardwood
prairies
Solar System
environmental impact
shading
Ecosystem
structural change
prairie
species diversity
ecosystems
species richness
Costs and Cost Analysis

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

Cite this

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title = "The demise of fire and {"}mesophication{"} of forests in the eastern United States",
abstract = "A diverse array of fire-adapted plant communities once covered the eastern United States. European settlement greatly altered fire regimes, often increasing fire occurrence (e.g., in northern hardwoods) or substantially decreasing it (e.g., in tallgrass prairies). Notwithstanding these changes, fire suppression policies, beginning around the 1920s, greatly reduced fire throughout the East, with profound ecological consequences. Fire-maintained open lands converted to closed-canopy forests. As a result of shading, shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive plants began to replace heliophytic (sun-loving), fire-tolerant plants. A positive feedback cycle - which we term {"}mesophication{"} - ensued, wherebymicroenvironmental conditions (cool, damp, and shaded conditions; less flammable fuel beds) continually improve for shade-tolerant mesophytic species and deteriorate for shade-intolerant, fire-adapted species. Plant communities are undergoing rapid compositional and structural changes, some with no ecological antecedent. Stand-level species richness is declining, and will decline further, as numerous fire-adapted plants are replaced by a limited set of shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive species. As this process continues, the effort and cost required to restore fire-adapted ecosystems escalate rapidly.",
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The demise of fire and "mesophication" of forests in the eastern United States. / Nowacki, Gregory J.; Abrams, Marc D.

In: BioScience, Vol. 58, No. 2, 01.02.2008, p. 123-138.

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

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