Applied historical ecology: Using the past to manage for the future

Thomas W. Swetnam, Craig D. Allen, Julio L. Betancourt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

967 Scopus citations


Applied historical ecology is the use of historical knowledge in the management of ecosystems. Historical perspectives increase our understanding of the dynamic nature of landscapes and provide a frame of reference for assessing modern patterns and processes. Historical records, however, are often too brief or fragmentary to be useful, or they are not obtainable for the process or structure of interest. Even where long historical time series can be assembled, selection of appropriate reference conditions may be complicated by the past influence of humans and the many potential reference conditions encompassed by nonequilibrium dynamics. These complications, however, do not lessen the value of history; rather they underscore the need for multiple, comparative histories from many locations for evaluating both cultural and natural causes of variability, as well as for characterizing the overall dynamical properties of ecosystems. Historical knowledge may not simplify the task of setting management goals and making decisions, but 20th century trends, such as increasingly severe wildfires, suggest that disregarding history can be perilous. We describe examples from our research in the southwestern United States to illustrate some of the values and limitations of applied historical ecology. Paleoecological data from packrat middens and other natural archives have been useful for defining baseline conditions of vegetation communities, determining histories and rates of species range expansions and contractions, and discriminating between natural and cultural causes of environmental change. We describe a montane grassland restoration project in northern New Mexico that was justified and guided by an historical sequence of aerial photographs showing progressive tree invasion during the 20th century. Likewise, fire scar chronologies have been widely used to justify and guide fuel reduction and natural five reintroduction in forests. A southwestern network of fire histories illustrates the power of aggregating historical time series across spatial scales. Regional fire patterns evident in these aggregations point to the key role of interannual lags in responses of fuels and fire regimes to the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (wet/dry cycles), with important implications for long-range fire hazard forecasting. These examples of applied historical ecology emphasize that detection and explanation of historical trends and variability are essential to informed management.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1189-1206
Number of pages18
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1999


  • Climate change
  • Disturbance
  • Fire history
  • Historical ecology
  • Packrat middens
  • Paleoecology
  • Range of natural variation
  • Repeat photography
  • Restoration
  • Southwestern United States
  • Tree rings
  • Vegetation change

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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