Sonoran Desert Research Center

In cooperation with the National Park Service and the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources

U.S. Geological Survey
Open-File Report 2005-1157
version 1.0

Managing Fire in the Northern Chihuahuan Desert: A Review and Analysis of the Literature

By Brooke S. Gebow and William L. Halvorsons


photo of limestone slope
Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Photograph by Dale Pate

Executive Summary

This report began as a literature review (Gebow and Halvorson 2001) conducted for fire planners at Carlsbad Caverns National Park who were seeking information about (1) the natural state of park vegetation, (2) northern Chihuahuan Desert natural fire regimes, and (3) fire effects on park plant species. It is the goal of managers there to continue to refine the wildland and prescribed fire program as they learn more about the ecosystems at the park.The park has a history of grazing and then fire suppression in the 20th century. The current effort revisits questions asked by earlier workers at the park, Walter Kittams and Gary Ahlstrand, who began fire studies in the 1970s.

This document addresses ecosystems and historical change to those systems in Chihuahuan Desert areas of southeast Arizona, southern New Mexico, west Texas, or in neighboring regions that share the same plant species. It examines fire literature for situations possibly analogous to those at Carlsbad Caverns. It also includes papers that offer advice on extrapolating future ecological trends from past ones (Swetnam et al. 1999) and on resource management decision-making (Grumbine 1997), and other pieces that address broader aspects of fire or landscape change (Goldman 1994; Marston 1996; Mutch 1994, 1995). These more philosophical works were included in the original review at the park’s request and have been retained here because they discuss other issues relevant to fire management.

Individual reviews of 35 papers, as requested originally by Carlsbad Caverns, appear in Appendix 1. The results section—summary of key findings—discusses historical changes to plant communities then focuses on burn intervals observed or recommended by workers for particular plant communities. Results from a search of the USDA Forest Service’s Fire Effects Information System ( are also included in this report, supplemented with information from a review conducted by Ahlstrand (1981b) that included much of his own work. This database contains comprehensive plant species accounts and fire effects data. Entries are available for a number of the dominant species at Carlsbad Caverns, though the information frequently applies to the plants in other parts of their ranges.

The literature presents highly variable fire effects and observed/recommended burn intervals for similar plant communities in the northern Chihuahuan Desert region. While local and longer-term fire-effects studies are still needed to guide resource managers, the variability seen in the literature itself translates into a fire management goal. Preserving the irregularity in time and space of fires would likely best replicate “natural” fire regimes.

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