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ESA 2020: Framework for Decision-Making

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Presentation from the 2020 annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), which took place online August 3-6, 2020.
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A Framework for Decision-Making In Post-Fire Management: Synthesis and New Directions
Jens Stevens, U.S. Geological Survey


Recently-burned areas comprise an increasing proportion of forest-capable landscapes, particularly in western North America. The scientific rationale for management decisions in these areas is less well articulated than in unburned forested areas, therefore resulting post-fire management decisions may be ad-hoc, opportunistic, or limited to triage-type actions. This creates a need and opportunity for a decision-making framework to identify key considerations that should drive management actions. We identify three high-level components to this framework: 1) whether to intervene, 2) where to intervene, and 3) how to intervene. We then suggest how this framework applies to post-fire decision making with respect to 1) fuels management, 2) reforestation, and 3) water resources.

With respect to fuels management, intervention in burned areas is often a secondary concern, as managers may prioritize projects in remaining unburned forest. Intervention most often consists of dead tree removal via salvage logging or site preparation prior to planting. Decisions to intervene in this instance should consider the likelihood of re-burning, the habitat requirements of post-fire specialists, snag longevity, and the preservation of residual live-tree refugia. Dead tree removal could be spatially prioritized around the margins of live tree refugia, and operationally prescribed fire or pile burning could be considered prior to a majority of snags coming down, to reduce fuel loads during the period of conifer regeneration.

With respect to reforestation, intervention most often consists of seedling planting, and decisions to intervene should consider whether prolonged alternative vegetation states are an acceptable component of the larger landscape. Spatial prioritization of planting should consider the potential for natural regeneration from live tree refugia populations, and spatial variability of future climatic suitability for particular species. Operationally, the importance of nurse objects, drought conditioning, and seed sources should be considered prior to planting.

With respect to water resources, soil stabilization efforts are a common intervention, with the decision to intervene influenced by downstream infrastructure and risk of flooding/debris flow potential. Spatial prioritization of burned area emergency rehabilitation (BAER) efforts should incorporate flood risk models and burn severity information, and operationally the decision to apply seed, straw or mulch should consider unforeseen future consequences including invasive species. Given limited resources for post-fire management, strategic prioritization of these types actions should create opportunities for natural processes to lead to a range of desirable successional outcomes and resilience to future fires.