Northwest Fisheries Science Center

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Document Type: Journal Article
Center: NWFSC
Document ID: 1893
Title: Using reference conditions in ecosystem restoration: an example for riparian conifer forests in the Pacific Northwest
Author: Michael M. Pollock, T. J. Beechie, H. Imaki
Publication Year: 2012
Journal: Ecosphere
Volume: 3
Issue: 11
Pages: 1-23
Keywords: Riparian forests, Douglas-fir forests, reference conditions, desired future conditions, large wood, riparian restoration, habitat restoration.

Quantifying the attributes of reference sites is a crucial problem in the restoration of ecosystems, driving both the evaluation of current conditions and the setting of management targets for specific points in the future.  Restoration of riparian ecosystems, particularly those dominated by conifers, has become a priority because of the numerous ecosystem services they provide, including a high number of vertebrate species in population decline that utilize these structurally complex forests.  By way of example, we illustrate a three-step process to assess the effects of proposed riparian ecosystem restoration efforts:  (1) identify reference sites  (2) quantify metrics that describe the reference sites, and  (3) use models to predict the likely effects of restoration actions relative to reference conditions.

To this end, we identified 117 natural, late-successional conifer dominated stands from existing forest inventories in the Pacific Northwest for the purpose of establishing reference conditions.  We did this to establish quantitative metrics for structural attributes essential to the maintenance of biodiversity in these forests, and to assess whether there were any important quantitative differences between upland and riparian forests or whether upland and riparian forest reference sites could be used interchangeably.

Both forest types were generally similar, but riparian stands had higher average live tree wood volumes and basal areas, suggesting they may be growing on sites that are more productive.  Both riparian and upland forests had abundant large-diameter (>50 cm) live trees and snags.  Collectively, our data suggest that mature, late-successional conifer-dominated forests have well-developed structural characteristics in terms of abundant large trees in the overstory, abundant large snags, and a well-developed understory of shade-tolerant trees.

We modeled the growth of young conifer stands to assess whether a common restoration treatment would accelerate development of structural characteristics typical of reference conditions.  We found that left untreated, the stands followed a trajectory towards developing forest structure similar to the average reference condition.  In contrast, the restoration treatment followed a developmental trajectory along the outside range of reference conditions.

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Notes: Ecosphere 3:art98.