Canadian Forest Service Publications

Have some landscapes in the eastern Canadian boreal forest moved beyond their natural range of variability? 2018. Grondin, P.; Gauthier, S.; Poirier, V.; Tardif, P.; Boucher, Y.; Bergeron, Y. For. Ecosyst. 5: 30.

Year: 2018

Issued by: Laurentian Forestry Centre

Catalog ID: 39244

Language: English

Availability: PDF (request by e-mail)

Available from the Journal's Web site.
DOI: 10.1186/s40663-018-0148-9

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Background: In the context of ecosystem management, the present study aims to compare the natural and the present-day forested landscapes of a large territory in Quebec (Canada). Using contemporary and long-term fire cycles, each natural forest landscape is defined according to the variability of its structure and composition, and compared to the present-day landscape. This analysis was conducted to address the question of whether human activities have moved these ecosystems outside the range of natural landscape variability.

Methods: The study encompassed a forested area of 175 000 km2 divided into 14 landscapes. Using a framework that integrates fire cycles, age structure and forest dynamics, we characterized the forest composition and age structures that resulted from three historical fire cycles (110, 140, and 180 years) representative of the boreal forest of eastern Canada. The modeled natural landscapes were compared with present-day landscapes in regard to the proportion of old-growth forests (landscape level) and the proportion of late-successional forest stands (landscape level and potential vegetation type).

Results: Four landscapes (39%) remain within their natural range of variability. In contrast, nine landscapes (54%) show a large gap between natural and present-day landscapes. These nine are located in the southern portion of the study area, and are mainly associated with Abies-Betula vegetation where human activities have contributed to a strong increase in the proportion of Populus tremuloides stands (early-successional stages) and a decrease of old-growth forest stands (more than 100 years old). A single landscape (7%), substantially changed from its potential natural state, is a candidate for adaptive-based management.

Conclusion: Comparison of corresponding natural (reference conditions) and present-day landscapes showed that ten landscapes reflecting an important shift in forest composition and age structure could be considered beyond the range of their natural variability. The description of a landscape’s natural variability at the scale of several millennia can be considered a moving benchmark that can be re-evaluated in the context of climate change. Focusing on regional landscape characteristics and long-term natural variability of vegetation and forest age structure represents a step forward in methodology for defining reference conditions and following shifts in landscape over time.

Plain Language Summary

In this study, the researchers used modelling to compare natural landscapes (baseline) with current landscapes resulting from three fire cycles representative of eastern Canada’s boreal forest. Over 70% of the landscapes showed significant change in forest composition and age structure that could be considered beyond their natural variability. The description of a landscape’s natural variability over several thousand years can be used as a benchmark for further evaluations in the context of climate change. These analyses help defining baseline conditions and studying changes in the landscape.