Changing forest structure across the landscape of the Sierra Nevada, CA, USA, since the 1930s

Christopher R. Dolanc, Hugh D. Safford, James H. Thorne, Solomon Z. Dobrowski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


Understanding the dynamics of forest structure aids inference regarding future forests and their distributions around the world. Over the last few decades, several papers have addressed changing forest structure in the Sierra Nevada, CA, USA, but these studies were limited in scope. We carried out a broad comparison of forest density and composition in the 1930s versus the 2000s for the west slope of the central and northern Sierra Nevada, using the two most extensive data sets available. Forests in this region have endured a long, complex history of human disturbance, and are now experiencing climatic shifts. We subdivided the landscape into elevation and latitude zones and compared historical and modern tree densities within each zone. We compared densities in historical plots to burned and unburned modern plots, as well as densities of individual tree species in historical vs. modern plots for their entire elevational distribution. Density of small trees (10.2-30.4 cm dbh) was significantly higher in the modern data set for all elevations and all latitudes, ranging from 20 to 148% higher. However, density of large trees (≥61.0 cm) was lower in the modern data set for most elevations and latitudes, ranging from 41% to 60% lower in most zones. Density difference of mid-sized trees (30.5-60.9 cm) was mixed, but was generally higher in modern plots. The pattern of more small trees but fewer large trees held for most individual species as well, but with notable exceptions. Our comparison of burned and unburned plots strongly implicates fire suppression as a driver of increased density of small trees in low-to mid-elevation forests. However, modern high-elevation (<2500 m) forests, where fire suppression impacts should be minimal, were also significantly denser than historical plots. Changing climatic conditions may be driving increased densities of small trees in high elevations, as well as decreased densities of large trees across the region.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 29 2014


  • Climate change
  • Demography
  • Elevation
  • Fire suppression
  • Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA)
  • Forest structure
  • Historical data
  • Latitude
  • Sierra Nevada
  • Tree density
  • Vegetation Type Mapping (VTM)


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