Restoring forest structure and process stabilizes forest carbon in wildfire-prone southwestern ponderosa pine forests
Changing climate and a legacy of fire-exclusion have increased the probability of high-severity wildfire, leading to an increased risk of forest carbon loss in ponderosa pine forests in the southwestern USA. Efforts to reduce high-severity fire risk through forest thinning and prescribed burning require both the removal and emission of carbon from these forests, and any potential carbon benefits from treatment may depend on the occurrence of wildfire. We sought to determine how forest treatments alter the effects of stochastic wildfire events on the forest carbon balance. We modeled three treatments (control, thin-only, and thin and burn) with and without the occurrence of wildfire. We evaluated how two different probabilities of wildfire occurrence, 1% and 2% per year, might alter the carbon balance of treatments. In the absence of wildfire, we found that thinning and burning treatments initially reduced total ecosystem carbon (TEC) and increased net ecosystem carbon balance (NECB). In the presence of wildfire, the thin and burn treatment TEC surpassed that of the control in year 40 at 2%/yr wildfire probability, and in year 51 at 1%/yr wildfire probability. NECB in the presence of wildfire showed a similar response to the no-wildfire scenarios: both thin-only and thin and burn treatments increased the C sink. Treatments increased TEC by reducing both mean wildfire severity and its variability. While the carbon balance of treatments may differ in more productive forest types, the carbon balance benefits from restoring forest structure and fire in southwestern ponderosa pine forests are clear.