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Fire is a keystone ecological process in the vegetation of the Sky Islands of Arizona and beyond, affecting every aspect of these ecosystems, including soils, forest structure, species composition, carbon storage, wildlife populations, and much more. For thousands of years, wildfires have been, not a disruptive external force, but an intrinsic part of these natural communities, as integral as water, sunlight, soil, and air. Times have changed. Human-induced fire suppression and climate change have dramatically altered fire regimes across the region, and the fires of the 21st century are a serious problem. Not only are uncharacteristically large and intense fires disrupting ecosystems that historically experienced more frequent, low-intensity wildfire, they are also threatening human communities in the rapidly-growing wildland-urban interface. A key recommendation of the 2007 Statewide Strategy for Restoring Arizona’s Forests was that “The Arizona State Legislature, county and local governments, tribal governments, and state agencies should develop land use policies and practices that support forest restoration, community protection, and fire management efforts.” (Recommendation 2.2, p.9).

The goal of this essay is to discuss the landscape role of fire in the Sky Islands of southern Arizona, and in particular Chiricahua National Monument. We will describe fire and vegetation conditions before Euro-American settlement, changes in fire regime and ecosystems wrought over the past 150 years, the accompanying shifts in plant communities, and projections for the future. We will marshal our recent field research, tying our results to specific places in the park, but we will also summarize general principles developed from many decades of ecological research across the Southwest. Our mission is to provide essential fire ecology background for park staff, who enlighten park visitors about the ecologically-rich and regionally-important environments of Chiricahua National Monument (CHIR).



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