The structure and composition of southwestern dry mixed-conifer forests have changed significantly, decreasing forest resiliency to uncharacteristic disturbances which also threaten ecosystem services. Restoration of these forests can be informed by historical conditions; however, managers and researchers still lack a full understanding of how environmental factors influence forest conditions. We investigated historical and contemporary variability in dry mixed-conifer forests in northern Arizona and identified important environmental drivers. We utilized forest sample plots and dendrochronological reconstruction modelling to describe forest conditions in 1879 and 2014, respectively. We used correlogram analysis to compare spatial autocorrelation of average diameter, basal area and tree density, and structural equation modeling to partition the causal pathways between forest structure, forest composition, and a suite of environmental factors reflecting climate, topography, and soil. Historical (1879) reconstructed forests had significantly fewer trees, lower basal area, and higher average diameter than contemporarily (2014). Composition has shifted from ponderosa pine dominance towards a more mixed-species composition. Historically, forest structure did not exhibit strong spatial autocorrelation, but contemporary tree density and diameter were strongly autocorrelated. Environmental factors described little variation in historical forest conditions but are more important for contemporary conditions. Managers can utilize this increased understanding of variation to tailor silvicultural prescriptions to environmental templates.
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