A diverse array of fire-adapted plant communities once covered the eastern United States. European settlement greatly altered fire regimes, often increasing fire occurrence (e.g., in northern hardwoods) or substantially decreasing it (e.g., in tallgrass prairies). Notwithstanding these changes, fire suppression policies, beginning around the 1920s, greatly reduced fire throughout the East, with profound ecological consequences. Fire-maintained open lands converted to closed-canopy forests. As a result of shading, shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive plants began to replace heliophytic (sun-loving), fire-tolerant plants. A positive feedback cycle—which we term “mesophication”—ensued, whereby microenvironmental conditions (cool, damp, and shaded conditions; less flammable fuel beds) continually improve for shade-tolerant mesophytic species and deteriorate for shade-intolerant, fire-adapted species. Plant communities are undergoing rapid compositional and structural changes, some with no ecological antecedent. Stand-level species richness is declining, and will decline further, as numerous fire-adapted plants are replaced by a limited set of shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive species. As this process continues, the effort and cost required to restore fire-adapted ecosystems escalate rapidly.
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Vol. 58 • No. 2