US Forest Service Research & Development
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  • US Forest Service Research & Development
  • 1400 Independence Ave., SW
  • Washington, D.C. 20250-0003
  • 800-832-1355
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Paula J. Fornwalt, Research Ecologist

Paula J. Fornwalt

Research Ecologist
240 West Prospect Road
Fort Collins
United States

Phone: 970-498-2581
Contact Paula J. Fornwalt

Current Research

I conduct research that examines how natural and human disturbances affect plant populations and communities in Rocky Mountain forests. This research falls into three broad themes: (1) developing and utilizing information on historical vegetation reference conditions; (2) investigating how contemporary “natural” (non-management) disturbances influence vegetation; and (3) examining the impacts of contemporary land management activities on vegetation. Some of my current research projects are described below. In addition to conducting research, I also oversee the Manitou Experimental Forest in Woodland Park, CO. Manitou was established in 1938 to facilitate research on the ecology and management of southern Rockies dry conifer forests.

1. Historical reference conditions

Information on the historical overstory structures and fire regimes of dry conifer forests is essential for understanding how they have changed due to post-settlement logging, grazing, and fire suppression, and in turn, for guiding management efforts to restore more ecologically-appropriate forest conditions. My collaborators and I are using dendrochronology to reconstruct historical overstory structures and fire regimes for dry conifer forests of CO, SD, and WY, and to quantify current deviations from historical conditions.

2. Contemporary natural disturbances

A century of fire suppression and other factors have led to recent increases in wildfire frequency and severity in dry conifer forests. I am leading a team that is tackling questions about how tree species’ life histories interact with fire severity and biophysical factors to influence post-fire tree regeneration in ponderosa pine forests of AZ, CO, SD, and WY.

Recent bark beetle outbreaks have disturbed millions of hectares of subalpine forest across the Rockies. My collaborators and I are utilizing Forest Inventory and Analysis data from beetle-affected lodgepole pine forests in CO and WY to characterize overstory structure and tree regeneration approximately a decade following the outbreak, and to examine how they are related to biophysical drivers. My collaborators and I are also utilizing pre- and post-outbreak vegetation data from an Engelmann spruce – subalpine fir forest site in WY to examine how the outbreak has influenced overstory and understory plant communities.

It has long been predicted that subalpine and alpine environments would be among the first to experience climate change effects. The Glacier Lakes Ecosystem Experiments Site was established in the 1980s, in part, to assess such effects for subalpine and alpine ecosystems in WY. I am on a team that is contributing to this line of inquiry using climate, overstory, and understory data that have been collected at the site since it was established. Results will improve our ability to predict the fate of subalpine and alpine ecosystems as climate changes.

3. Contemporary land management activities

Collaborative forest restoration treatments are becoming ever more common in western dry conifer forests as managers and their stakeholders strive to make them more resilient to fire, climate change, and other disturbances. I am helping to examine the impacts of such treatments on overstory and understory vegetation in dry conifer forests in CO. Results will inform assessments of whether collaborative restoration treatments are meeting desired conditions in CO and across the western US.

Extensive beetle-caused tree mortality in Rocky Mountain subalpine forests has prompted some salvage logging of dead trees. I am working with collaborators to assess the short- and long-term ecological impacts of post-outbreak salvage logging in CO lodgepole pine forests. My focus is on impacts to understory plant communities. Findings will allow managers to make more informed decisions about how best to steward the vast expanse of beetle-affected subalpine forest in the Rockies.

Research Interests

Forest ecology; Disturbance ecology; Plant community ecology; Plant population ecology; Fire ecology; Exotic plant invasions; Forest restoration; Silviculture


  • University of Delaware, Newark, DE, B.S. Environmental Science 1996
  • Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, M.S. Forest Sciences 1999
  • Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, Ph.D. Ecology 2009

Professional Experience

  • Research Ecologist, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, CO
    2010 - Current
  • Ecologist, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, CO
    2002 - 2010
  • Biological Science Technician, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, CO
    1999 - 2002


Research Highlights


A Decade after the 2002 Hayman Fire, Understory Plant Communities are Diverse and Productive

In 2002, Colorado’s Hayman Fire burned research plots used to sample understory plant communities, providing an opportunity to address these c ...


Ecological impacts of collaborative forest restoration treatments

Restoration treatments are being implemented at an increasing rate in ponderosa pine and other dry conifer forests across the western United Sta ...


Post-fire Conifer Regeneration in Severely Burned Southern Rocky Mountain Ponderosa Pine Forests

Wildfire is an important disturbance in ponderosa pine forests of the southern Rocky Mountains. Forest Service research results from the Colorad ...


Spatial patterns of ponderosa pine regeneration in high-severity burn patches

Over the past three decades, wildfires in Southwestern United States ponderosa pine forests have increased in size and severity, leaving large p ...


Was the 2002 Hayman Fire, Colorado, an uncharacteristically severe event?

In 2002, the Hayman Fire burned across the unlogged Cheesman Lake landscape, a 3,400 hectare dry-conifer forest landscape in Colorado that had b ...


Last updated on : 09/13/2021