Ponderosa Pine Restoration and Fuel Hazard Reduction at Lick Creek

See: A Century of Change in a Ponderosa Pine Forest for more information about the Historical Photopoints in the Lick Creek Drainage.

Lick Creek is the longest running fuel treatment and restoration study in the western United States. The study area is located in the northern Rocky Mountains of the United States in a ponderosa pine dominated forest. Through repeat photography and numerous published studies, we show how fuels and vegetation have changed over the 20+ years since treatment and compare the effects of harvesting with and without prescribed burning.

The Lick Creek Demonstration/Research Forest (Lick Creek) on the Darby Ranger District of the Bitterroot National Forest, Montana provides a unique opportunity to assess long-term effects of alternative cutting and prescribed burning strategies aimed at reducing fuels and moderating forest fire behavior while restoring historical stand structures and species compositions. In 1991, a cooperative venture among the Bitterroot National Forest, University of Montana, and Forest Service Intermountain Research Station (now Rocky Mountain Research Station) initiated three independent studies of thinning, retention shelterwood, and single-tree selection cuttings, with and without prescribed burning treatments. Treated units were harvested in 1992 and half of the units were prescribed burned 1 to 2 years later. Throughout the 20+ years since the treatments, numerous effects on the forest ecosystem have been studied, including: fuels, forest structure and composition, understory species responses, tree physiology, resistance to bark beetles, carbon storage, and fire hazard. Permanent photo points established in each study also visually document forest and fuel change over time.

The goals of the initial project were to increase knowledge of forest vegetation and fuel dynamics following restoration treatments, study how these differ among restoration treatment alternatives, and gain understanding of the efficacy and longevity of prescribed treatments. Study results have provided managers with guidelines for restoring ponderosa pine systems in the northern Rocky Mountain region.

In 2015 the Joint Fire Science Program funded a re-measurement of the Lick Creek study plots for two of the three studies (thinning and shelterwood studies). The re-measurement added value to past data collection efforts through modern data analysis techniques to examine treatment longevity and effects on aspects of forest resilience, including resistance to bark beetle outbreaks and resilience to drought and wildfire.

The main findings of the re-measurement are, 24 years post-treatment, cutting and burning treatments have resulted in:

  • Persistent increased tree growth, even during drought because trees can grow late into the summer
  • Reduced tree mortality from mountain pine beetle during an outbreak in the 2000s
  • Elevated cover of non-native understory plants such as spotted knapweed, though at much lower levels (average ~4%) than seen at the peak 3-5 years post-treatment
  • Aboveground tree biomass (i.e., carbon storage) recovering to pre-harvest levels
  • Surface and canopy fuel loads similar to untreated units
  • Increased ladder fuels from saplings and seedlings
  • Crowning and torching indices similar to untreated units

All data is archived and publicly available through the Forest Service Research Data archive, including treatment photoseries that document changes from pre-treatment in 1991, post-harvest, and several post-burning timesteps through 2016.

Take home messages:

  • Fuel reduction and restoration treatments are most successful with a combination of cutting and burning strategies
  • Single-entry fuel treatments in low-elevation dry forests will likely not remain effective for much longer than historical mean fire return intervals so maintenance/re-entry treatments are needed.
  • The overstory is still dominated by ponderosa pine for all treatments, but the smaller size classes are primarily Douglas-fir, suggesting that without future disturbance, dominance will shift from shade-intolerant pine to shade-tolerant Douglas-fir-dominated forests.
  • Continued monitoring of any future re-treatments is important to determine if treatment efficacy is sustained and how non-native plant species respond.

Lick Creek remains an active research site. In 2015/2016, the thinning study had a second entry thinning and the units were remeasured in 2016 to capture the immediate post-harvest effects. In 2022, the units were measured again in anticipation of conducting follow-up prescribed burns in the cut+burn units. Those burns were completed Spring and Fall of 2023. The uneven-aged study site using single tree selection with and without fire was remeasured in 2022. Additional cutting and prescribed burning in the uneven-aged and shelterwood studies are planned for as early as 2024.



Photo documentation of stand changes
Tour of Lick Creek shelterwood treatments

Select Publications & Products

Publications and Products from on-going JFSP study:

Data Archive

Lutes, D.C., Hood, S.M., Keyes, C.R., Harrington, M.G., Pearson, D.E., Ortega, Y.K., Sala, A., 2020. Lick Creek Demonstration-Research Forest: Data and photo archive of 25-year fire and cutting effects on vegetation and fuels. Fort Collins, CO: Forest Service Research Data Archive.

Journal Articles

Jang, W., Crotteau, J., Ortega, Y.K., Hood, S.M., Keyes, C.R., Pearson, D.E., Lutes, D., Sala, A., 2021. Native and non-native understory vegetation responses to restoration treatments in a dry conifer forest over 23 years. For. Ecol. Manage. 481, 118684.

Hood, S.M., Keyes, C.R., Bowen, K.J., Lutes, D.C., Seielstad, C., 2020. Fuel treatment longevity in ponderosa pine-dominated forest 24 years after cutting and prescribed burning. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change 3.

Tepley, A.J., Hood, S.M., Keyes, C.R., Sala, A., 2020. Forest restoration treatments in a ponderosa pine forest enhance physiological activity and growth under climatic stress. Ecol. Appl. 30, e2188.

Tepley, A.J., Hood, S.M., Keyes, C.R., Sala, A., 2020. Forest Restoration Treatments in a Ponderosa Pine Forest Enhance Physiological Activity and Growth Under Climatic Stress. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 101, e01772.

Bowen, K., Keyes, C., Hood, S., Seielstad, C., Lutes, D., 2020. Comparison of three methods for quantifying coarse surface fuel loading. In: Hood, Sharon M.; Drury, Stacy; Steelman, Toddi; and Steffens, Ron, eds. Proceedings of the Fire Continuum – preparing for the future of wildland fire; 2018 May 21-24; Missoula, MT. Proceedings RMRS-P-78. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. Online. pp. 22-30.

Clyatt KA, Keyes CR, Hood SM (2017) Long-term effects of fuel treatments on aboveground biomass accumulation in ponderosa pine forests of the northern Rocky Mountains. Forest Ecology and Management 400:587-599.

Other Products

Seeing the Big Picture: Long Term Studies at Lick Creek Demonstrate How Fuel Treatments Impact a Changing Forest. Rocky Mountain Research Station Science You Can Use (in 5 minutes). March 2021.

Lick Creek: Lessons learned after 20+ years of fuel treatments in ponderosa pine. Northern Rockies Fire Science Network

Hood, S.M, C. Keyes, A. Sala, D. Lutes, K. Clyatt, K. Jenkins. 2015. Lick Creek Demonstration-Research Forest: 25-year fire and cutting effects on vegetation and fuels. Poster presentation at Association for Fire Ecology 6th International Fire Ecology and Management Congress. San Antonio, TX.

Jenkins, K., C. Keyes, S. Hood. 2015. Effectiveness and Longevity of Ponderosa Pine Fuels Reduction Treatments at Lick Creek Demonstration/Research Forest, Montana. Poster presentation at Society of American Foresters National Convention. Baton Rouge, LA.

Clyatt, Kate A., "Long-Term Impacts of Fuel Treatments on Tree Growth and Aboveground Biomass Accumulation in Ponderosa Pine Forests of the Northern Rocky Mountains" (2016). Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers. Paper 10712. 

K. Clyatt, C. Keyes, D. Page-Dumroese, S. Hood. 2015. Long-term Impacts of Fuel Treatments on Productivity and Aboveground Biomass in Ponderosa Pine Forests of the Intermountain West. Poster presentation at Society of American Foresters National Convention. Baton Rouge, LA.

Publications from original research study:

Arno, S.; M. Harrington; C. Fiedler; C. Carlson. 1995. Restoring fire-dependent ponderosa pine forests in western Montana. Resoration and Management Notes 13:32-36.

Arno, S.; C. Fiedler. 2005. Mimicking nature's fire: restoring fire-prone forests in the West. Island Press.

Ayers, D.; D. Bedunah; M. Harrington. 1999. Antelope Bitterbrush and Scouler's Willow Response to a Shelterwood Harvest and Prescribed Burn in Western Montana. Western J. App. For. 14:137-143.

Peters, G.; A. Sala. 2008. Reproductive output of ponderosa pine in response to thinning and prescribed burning in western Montana. Can. J. For.Res. 38:844-850.

Sala, A.; G. Peters; L. McIntyre; M.Harrington. 2005. Physiological responses of ponderosa pine in western Montana to thinning, prescribed fire and burning season. Tree Physiology 25:339-348.

Smith, H.; S.Arno, eds. 1999. Eighty-eight years of change in a managed ponderosa pine forest. RMRS-GTR-23. USDA, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ogden, UT.