Tree-ring fire scars, tree ages, historical photographs, and historical surveys indicate that, for centuries, fire played different ecological roles across gradients of elevation, forest, and fire regimes in the Taos Valley Watersheds. Historical fire regimes collapsed across the three watersheds by 1899, leaving all sites without fire for at least 119 years. Historical photographs and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) ages indicate that a high-severity fire historically burned at multiple high-elevation subalpine plots in today’s Village of Taos Ski Valley, with large high-severity patches (>640 ha). Low-severity, frequent (9–29-year median interval) surface fires burned on the south aspects in nearby lower elevation dry conifer forests in all watersheds. Fires were associated with drought during the fire year. Widespread fires commonly burned synchronously in multiple watersheds during more severe drought years, preceded by wet years, including fire in all three watersheds in 1664, 1715, and 1842. In contrast, recent local “large” wildfires have only burned within single watersheds and may not be considered large in a historical context. Management to promote repeated low-severity fires and the associated open stand structures is within the historical range of variability in the dry conifer forests of these watersheds. In the high-elevation, subalpine forests,
different management approaches are needed, which balance ecological and socioeconomic values while providing public safety.
Keywords: Carson National Forest; Columbine-Hondo Wilderness; fire regimes; high-severity fire; historical ecology; Sangre de Cristo Mountains; Taos Ski Valley; Taos Pueblo; tree ring