Process-centred restoration in a fire-adapted ponderosa pine forest
Summary Accurate and ecologically meaningful characterisation of reference conditions is a fundamental premise of restoration ecology. Restoration practice and research commonly define reference conditions in terms of compositional and structural elements. We propose a “process-centred” framework that places central emphasis on ecological functions and ecosystem processes. A wide variety of processes is central to the functioning and dynamics of ecological systems, and can be placed at the foundation of restoration research and practice. A process-centred approach allows the definition of “reference dynamics”, where spatial and temporal variability and underlying mechanisms of change are primary. We illustrate this approach using a 303-yr reconstruction of the natural surface fire regime to guide restoration of a Pinus ponderosa forest in the Jemez Mountains of southwestern North America. Fire occurrence varied over space and time during the period of record, with ecologically significant variation in fire intervals (yr fire−1) governed by process–structure interactions. We defined a variety of reference variables for reintroduction of fire as the keystone ecological process, along with related structural variation. A process-centered approach and the reference dynamics paradigm can replace a more static concept of reference conditions in defining restoration baselines and provide an improved standard of comparison for restoration ecology.