Cumulative effects of roads and logging on landscape structure in the San Juan Mountains, Colorado (USA)

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In the southern Rocky Mountains of temperate North America, the effects of Euro-American activities on disturbance regimes and landscape patterns have been less ubiquitous and less straightforward in high-elevation landscapes than in low-elevation landscapes. Despite apparently little change in the natural disturbance regime, there is increasing concern that forest management activities related mainly to timber harvest and to the extensive network of roads constructed to support timber harvest, fire control, and recreation since the late 1800s have altered disturbance regimes and landscape structure. We investigated the magnitude of change in landscape structure resulting from roads and logging since the onset of timber harvest activities in 1950. We found limited evidence for significant impacts in our study area when all lands within the landscape were considered. The relatively minor changes we observed reflected the vast buffering capacity of the large proportion of lands managed for purposes other than timber (e.g., wilderness). Significant changes in landscape structure and fragmentation of mature forest were, however, evident on lands designated as suitable timberlands. Roughly half of the mature coniferous forest was converted to young stands; mean patch size and core area declined by 40% and 25%, respectively, and contrast-weighted edge density increased 2- to 3-fold. Overall, roads had a greater impact on landscape structure than logging in our study area. Indeed, the 3-fold increase in road density between 1950–1993 accounted for most of the changes in landscape configuration associated with mean patch size, edge density, and core area. The extent of area evaluated and the period over which change was evaluated had a large impact on the magnitude of change detected and our conclusions regarding the ecological significance of those changes. Specifically, the cumulative impact on landscape structure was negligible over a 10-year period, but was notable over a 40-year period. In addition, the magnitude of change in landscape structure between 1950–1993 varied as a function of landscape extent. At the scale of the 228 000 ha landscape, change in landscape structure was trivial, suggesting that the landscape was capable of fully incorporating the disturbances with minimal impact. However, at intermediate scales of 1000–10 000 ha landscapes, change in landscape structure was quite evident, suggesting that there may be an optimal range of scales for detecting changes in landscape structure within the study area.









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