Late-1800s land surveys were used to reconstruct historical forest structure and fire over more than 235,000 ha in ponderosa pine and mixed conifer landscapes of the San Juan Mountains, Colorado, to further understand differences among regional mountain ranges and help guide landscape-scale restoration and management. Historically, fire-resistant ponderosa pine forests with low tree density and relatively frequent fire, the most restorable forests, covered only the lower 15%–24% of the study area. The other 76%–85% had dominance by mixed- to high-severity fires. Both ponderosa pine and dry mixed conifer had generally pervasive, often dense understory shrubs, and ~20% of pine and ~50%–75% of mixed conifer forests also had high historical tree density. Intensive fuel reduction and mechanical restoration are infeasible and likely ineffective in the upper part of the pine zones and in mixed conifer, where restoring historical fire and creating fire-adapted communities and infrastructure may be the only viable option. Old-growth forests can be actively restored in the lower 15%–24% of the montane, likely increasing landscape resistance and resilience to fire, but mixed- to high-severity fires did also occur near these areas. This imperfect resistance suggests that fire-adapted human communities and infrastructure are needed throughout the study area.
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