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Land ownership and 20th century changes to forest structure in California


Forests in California have changed dramatically during the 20th century. Shifts in forest structure including densification, declines in large trees and tree basal area have altered the function, productivity, and resilience of modern day forests. Attributing these changes to specific drivers is increasingly important for effective management of healthy and productive forests. Previous studies focus on climatic (temperature, precipitation, climatic water deficit), disturbance (fire), geomorphological (topography, soil types), and anthropogenic (logging, fire suppression) drivers, but few studies evaluate large scale change in forest structure across land ownership type. In this paper, we investigate 20th century changes to forest structure across six land ownership classes in California. We compare historical and contemporary forest structural data and find that declines in large trees and increases in forest density are consistent across the state. This pattern is most pronounced on private timberlands, which experience up to 400% regional increases in small tree (<10.2 cm) density since 1930. All land ownership classes experience declines in large trees, while private timberlands, national parks and wilderness areas experience the most extreme change with an average loss of over 83% and 71% respectively. We conclude that understanding patterns of change across land ownership is essential for targeting federal, state, and locally specific policies that foster healthy and resilient forests for the future.

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