Spatial patterns of tree cover change at a dry forest margin are driven by initial conditions, water balance and wildfire

Lucas B. Harris, Alan H. Taylor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Context: Increases in tree cover at dry forest margins are a global phenomenon. Yet, how pre-existing tree cover interacts with terrain and water balance to influence tree cover change is not well-understood, nor whether subsequent disturbances restore prior tree cover patterns or create novel patterns. Objectives: To assess how terrain, water balance and pre-existing patterns of tree cover influenced late twentieth century tree cover change, and how subsequent wildfires altered tree cover patterns. Methods: We analyzed tree canopy cover at four sites at the forest-steppe ecotone on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, California, U.S.A., using aerial photographs from 1953/1955, 1999/2002 and 2016. Influences on tree cover change were assessed using statistical modeling, and tree cover in 1953/1955 was compared with post-wildfire tree cover in 2016. Results: From 1953 to 2002, area with > 25% canopy cover increased by 1.5 to 5-fold and treeless area decreased by 17–111%. Mesic areas and areas of sparse tree cover close to existing forest tended to gain more canopy cover. Subsequent wildfires caused a mix of net tree cover loss, little change and gain relative to 1953/1955, but at all sites areas with > 25% cover and < 10% cover in 1953/55 experienced net losses and gains respectively by 2016. Conclusions: Accounting for initial tree cover and its configuration are crucial to assessing water balance and terrain effects on tree cover change. Our work highlights how wildfires can generate novel patterns of tree cover relative to historical baselines, especially following decades of fire exclusion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)353-371
Number of pages19
JournalLandscape Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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