Braziunas, Kristin H. 2018. Looking beyond the mean: Drivers of variability in postfire stand development of Rocky Mountain conifers. MS Thesis, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

High-severity, infrequent fires in forests shape landscape mosaics of stand age and structure for decades to centuries, and forest structure can vary substantially even among same-aged stands. This variability among stand structures can affect landscape-scale carbon and nitrogen cycling, wildlife habitat availability, and vulnerability to subsequent disturbances. We used an individual-based forest process model (iLand) to ask: Over 300 years of postfire stand development, how does variation in biotic versus abiotic conditions influence among-stand structural variability for four conifer species widespread in western North America? We parameterized iLand for lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca), Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), and subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) in Greater Yellowstone (USA). Simulations were initialized with field data on regeneration following stand-replacing fires, and stand development was simulated under historical climatic conditions without further disturbance. Stand structure was characterized by stand density and basal area. Stands became more similar in structure as time since fire increased. Basal area converged more rapidly among stands than among-stand tree density for Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine, but not for subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce. For all species, regeneration-driven variation in stand density persisted for at least 80 years postfire, and for lodgepole pine, early regeneration densities dictated among-stand variation for up to 270 years. The relative importance of abiotic and biotic drivers of stand structural variability differed between density and basal area and among species due to differential species traits, growth rates, and sensitivity to intraspecific competition versus abiotic conditions. Understanding dynamics of postfire stand development is increasingly important for anticipating future landscape patterns as fire activity increases.