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Forest restoration as a strategy to mitigate climate impacts on wildfire, vegetation, and water in semiarid forests


O'Donnell, Frances C.
Flatley, William T.
Springer, Abraham E.
Fulé, Peter Z.


Climate change and wildfire are interacting to drive vegetation change and potentially reduce water quantity and quality in the southwestern United States, Forest restoration is a management approach that could mitigate some of these negative outcomes. However, little information exists on how restoration combined with climate change might influence hydrology across large forest landscapes that incorporate multiple vegetation types and complex fire regimes. We combined spatially explicit vegetation and fire modeling with statistical water and sediment yield models for a large forested landscape (335,000 ha) on the Kaibab Plateau in northern Arizona, USA. Our objective was to assess the impacts of climate change and forest restoration on the future fire regime, forest vegetation, and watershed outputs. Our model results predict that the combination of climate change and high‐severity fire will drive forest turnover, biomass declines, and compositional change in future forests. Restoration treatments may reduce the area burned in high‐severity fires and reduce conversions from forested to non‐forested conditions. Even though mid‐elevation forests are the targets of restoration, the treatments are expected to delay the decline of high‐elevation spruce–fir, aspen, and mixed conifer forests by reducing the occurrence of high‐severity fires that may spread across ecoregions. We estimate that climate‐induced vegetation changes will result in annual runoff declines of up to 10%, while restoration reduced or reversed this decline. The hydrologic model suggests that mid‐elevation forests, which are the targets of restoration treatments, provide around 80% of runoff in this system and the conservation of mid‐ to high‐elevation forests types provides the greatest benefit in terms of water conservation. We also predict that restoration treatments will conserve water quality by reducing patches of high‐severity fire that are associated with high sediment yield. Restoration treatments are a management strategy that may reduce undesirable outcomes for multiple ecosystem services.