Indexed on: 30 Sep '11Published on: 30 Sep '11Published in: Plant Ecology
Land use history reconstructions in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere indicate that periods of deforestation are often followed by natural afforestation, so that the long-term outcome at the landscape level will be a balance of retractions and advances of plant communities associated with varying local land uses. During the last decades of the XIX century, large forest areas were cleared in Northwestern Patagonia to open farmland. In this article, we compared historical land use/land cover maps with land cover maps derived from Landsat images to analyze the factors that may have influenced the dynamics of land cover change of the forest-steppe ecotone during the last 100 years. Our results indicate that Patagonian forests underwent a rapid initial recovery after the extensive fires of last century, replacing mainly shrublands. More than 50% of the old burns are currently covered by forests, and modern fires affect areas characterized by fire-prone vegetation. Whereas natural afforestation is an ongoing process positively associated with moisture, the rate of forest losses has increased during the last three decades, concentrating on xeric aspects and the vicinity of roads. We conclude that the outcome of the dynamics between fire-intolerant forests and fire-prone plant communities will largely depend on human-related activities, modeled by structural features of the landscape (i.e., topography, dominant winds), and processes triggered by past land uses.