Applied historical ecology: using the past to manage for the future
Document Type: Journal Article
Author(s): Thomas W. Swetnam; Craig D. Allen; Julio L. Betancourt
Publication Year: 1999

Cataloging Information

  • chaparral
  • climate change
  • coniferous forests
  • deserts
  • disturbance
  • ecology
  • ecosystem dynamics
  • fire injury
  • fire scar analysis
  • forest management
  • grasslands
  • habitat conversion
  • historical ecology
  • histories
  • Juniperus occidentalis
  • Juniperus osteosperma
  • lakes
  • Larrea tridentata
  • New Mexico
  • packrat middens
  • paleoecology
  • paleontology
  • photography
  • pine forests
  • Pinus edulis
  • Pinus monophylla
  • post-fire recovery
  • range management
  • range of natural variation
  • repeat photography
  • statistical analysis
  • subalpine forests
  • tree rings
  • vegetation change
Record Maintained By:
Record Last Modified: June 1, 2018
FRAMES Record Number: 9597
Tall Timbers Record Number: 11953
TTRS Location Status: In-file
TTRS Call Number: Journals-E
TTRS Abstract Status: Okay, Fair use, 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.


Applied historical ecology is the use of historical knowledge in the management of ecosystems. Historical perspectives increase our understanding of the dynamic nature of landscapes and provide a frame of reference for assessing modern patterns and processes. Historical records, however, are often too brief or fragmentary to be useful, or they are not obtainable for the process or structure of interest. Even where long historical time series can be assembled, selection of appropriate reference conditions may be complicated by the past influence of humans and the many potential reference conditions encompassed by nonequilibrium dynamics. These complications, however, do not lessen the value of history; rather they underscore the need for multiple, comparative histories from many locations for evaluating both cultural and natural causes of variability, as well as for characterizing the overall dynamical properties of ecosystems. Historical knowledge may not simplify the task of setting management goals and making decisions, but 20th century trends, such as increasingly severe wildfires, suggest that disregarding history can be perilous. We describe examples from our research in the southwestern United States to illustrate some of the values and limitations of applied historical ecology. Paleoecological data from packrat middens and other natural archives have been useful for defining baseline conditions of vegetation communities, determining histories and rates of species range expansions and contractions, and discriminating between natural and cultural causes of environmental change. We describe a montane grassland restoration project in northern New Mexico that was justified and guided by an historical sequence of aerial photographs showing progressive tree invasion during the 20th century. Likewise, fire scar chronologies have been widely used to justify and guide fuel reduction and natural fire reintroduction in forests. A southwestern network of fire histories illustrates the power of aggregating historical time series across spatial scales. Regional fire patterns evident in these aggregations point to the key role of interannual lags in responses of fuels and fire regimes to the El NiƱo-Southern Oscillation (wet/dry cycles), with important implications for long-range fire hazard forecasting. These examples of applied historical ecology emphasize that detection and explanation of historical trends and variability are essential to informed management.

Online Link(s):
Swetnam, Thomas W.; Allen, Craig D; Betancourt, Julio L. 1999. Applied historical ecology: using the past to manage for the future. Ecological Applications 9(4):1189-1206.