Wildfire activity and land use drove 20th‐century changes in forest cover in the Colorado front range

Kyle Rodman, University of Colorado Boulder
Thomas T. Veblen, University of Colorado Boulder
Sara Saraceni, Marche Polytechnic University
Teresa B. Chapman, University of Colorado Boulder

Publication of this article was funded by the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries Open Access Fund.

New data associated with this paper are available in the Dryad Digital Repository: https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.6hk485q (Rodman et al. 2019).


Recent shifts in global forest area highlight the importance of understanding the causes and consequences of forest change. To examine the influence of several potential drivers of forest cover change, we used supervised classifications of historical (1938–1940) and contemporary (2015) aerial imagery covering a 2932‐km2 study area in the northern Front Range (NFR) of Colorado and we linked observed changes in forest cover with abiotic factors, land use, and fire history. Forest cover in the NFR demonstrated broad‐scale changes 1938–2015 and overall cover increased 7.8%, but there was notable spatial variability and many sites also experienced Forest Loss. Recent (1978–2015) wildfire was the largest single driver of Forest Loss, with fires burning 14.3% of the total study area. Recently burned areas showed net losses of 36.9% forest cover. Reasons for Forest Gain were more complex, with elevation, past mining density, fire history, and topographic heat load index being the strongest predictors of increases in forest cover. Historical mining activity is one of the dominant anthropogenic impacts in ecosystems in the NFR and it had a complex, non‐linear relationship with 20th‐century changes in forest cover. Subalpine stands originating after stand‐replacing fires circa mid‐1800s to early 1900s showed some of the greatest gains in forest cover, indicative of slow and continuous post‐fire recovery through the 20th century. We also investigated factors such as land ownership, road density, forest management activities, and development intensity, which played detectable, but more minor roles in observed change. Twentieth‐century changes in forest cover throughout the NFR are a result of ecological disturbances and anthropogenic influences operating at varying timescales and overlaid upon variability in the abiotic environment.