Fire history and vegetation pattern in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA
Document Type: Journal Article
Author(s): M. Lisa Floyd-Hanna; William H. Romme; David D. Hanna
Publication Year: 2000

Cataloging Information

  • Amelanchier
  • Amelanchier utahensis
  • biogeography
  • Cercocarpus montanus
  • Cercocarpus spp.
  • chaparral
  • Colorado
  • cover
  • distribution
  • disturbance
  • elevation
  • fire exclusion
  • fire frequency
  • fire intensity
  • fire interval
  • fire management
  • fire regimes
  • fire sensitive plants
  • fire suppression
  • fire turnover time
  • firebreak
  • forest management
  • hardwood forest
  • histories
  • Juniperus
  • Juniperus osteosperma
  • Juniperus scopulorum
  • Mesa Verde National Park
  • national parks
  • petran chaparral
  • Pinus edulis
  • Pinus spp.
  • pinyon-juniper woodlands
  • post-fire recovery
  • prehistoric fires
  • Quercus gambelii
  • Quercus spp.
  • resprouting
  • shrublands
  • shrubs
  • succession
  • topography
  • vegetation patterns
  • wildfires
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Record Maintained By:
Record Last Modified: March 17, 2021
FRAMES Record Number: 10106
Tall Timbers Record Number: 12978
TTRS Location Status: In-file
TTRS Call Number: Journals-E
TTRS Abstract Status: Fair use, Okay, Reproduced by permission

This bibliographic record was either created or modified by the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy and is provided without charge to promote research and education in Fire Ecology. The E.V. Komarek Fire Ecology Database is the intellectual property of the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Annotated Bibliography

This document is part of the Southwest FireCLIME Annotated Bibliography, which includes published research related to the interactions between climate change, wildfire, and subsequent ecosystem effects in the southwestern U.S. The publications contained in the Bibliography have each been summarized to distill the outcomes as they pertain to fire and climate. Go to this document's record in the Southwest FireCLIME Annotated Bibliography.


Piñon-juniper woodlands (Pinus edulis, Juniperus osteosperma, and J. scopulorum) and petran chaparral communities (Quercus gambelii, Amelanchier utahensis, Cercocarpus montanus, and other tall shrub species) cover much of the Colorado Plateau in the southwestern United States. Long-term fire history and successional dynamics are poorly understood in these vegetation types. Therefore, we lack a suitable historical context for interpreting the ecological significance of large fires and dramatic vegetative changes that have occurred recently in these ecosystems. For example, in Mesa Verde National Park, located in southwestern Colorado, four large intense fires in the last 50 years have threatened significant cultural and natural resources and have caused debate over whether Mesa Verde's fire regime has been significantly altered by human activities in the last century. In this study, we dated prehistoric fires in shrublands dominated by Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii) by aging stems that resprouted after fire. We mapped the spatial extent of all fires >10 ha that occurred during the last 150 years within a 6600-ha, shrub-dominated portion of Mesa Verde National Park. The turnover time (years required to burn an area equal to the entire shrubland zone) was ∼100 years under the 'natural' fire regime of the mid- to late 19th century. Fire occurrence was reduced substantially during the first half of the 20th century, but the current fire regime (since about 1950) appears to be similar to that of the 19th century-despite a continuing policy of total fire suppression. The 'natural' fire turnover time in piñon-juniper woodlands of Mesa Verde is about 400 years. A sharp boundary exists between piñon-juniper woodlands at slightly lower elevations in the southern portion of the park and petran chaparral at slightly higher elevations in the north. This pattern is explained, in part, by more extensive fires in the northern area, which favor resprouting shrubs and eliminate the fire-sensitive piñon and juniper. The less frequent occurrence of large fires, and resulting persistence of woodland in the southern portion of the park, may be due in part to natural barriers to fire spread (cliffs and sparsely vegetated slopes) to the south and west of the piñon-juniper woodlands. Our findings demonstrate that fire frequency and extent in Mesa Verde during the last 50 years have not been greatly different from the “natural” fire regime of the late 1800s. Therefore, the recent large fires in the park, and the vegetative responses to those fires, appear to be within the historic range of variation for this ecosystem.

Online Link(s):
Floyd, M. Lisa; Romme, William H.; Hanna, David D. 2000. Fire history and vegetation pattern in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA. Ecological Applications 10(6):1666-1680.