Grand Canyon Ecosystem Monitoring

Grand Canyon Monitoring from Powell Plateau
The Grand Canyon seen from Powell Plateau on the North Rim—photo by Daniel Laughlin.

Cooperating Agencies:


Roughly 62 miles (100 km) northwest of Flagstaff, Arizona, on the Coconino Plateau (South Rim) and Kaibab Plateau (North Rim) of the Grand Canyon.

 Grand Canyon Ecosystem Monitoring Map

Date Initiated:


 Grand Canyon Ecosystem Monitoring 1

Forests on the South Rim contain many large ponderosa pines and Gambel oaks—photo by Mark Daniels


The forests of Grand Canyon National Park form a unique natural landscape in northern Arizona, having never been commercially harvested, and having been protected for almost 100 years from widespread grazing by domestic livestock. On both sides of the canyon, the Park encompasses majestic forests with numerous large, old trees; the South Rim forests range from pinyon-juniper woodlands through ponderosa pine and Gambel oak, while the North Rim includes these forest types up plus higher- elevation mixed-conifer, aspen, and spruce-fir. Though all of these forests have been affected by 20th century fire suppression to one degree or another, many have maintained a semblance of their pre-Euro-American-settlement fire regimes, and can therefore serve as “reference sites” against which to compare other area forests that have been more degraded and overgrown.

 Grand Canyon Ecosystem Monitoring 2

Powell Plateau, which has had a relatively uninterrupted fire regime, retains the open tree stands and productive understory vegetation characteristic of ponderosa pine forests before Euro-American fire exclusionphoto by Mark Daniels

The overall preservation of the national park environment makes this area a unique study site in which to investigate the structure and ecological functioning of southwestern forests, including how they adapt to changing fire regimes. Landscape-scale study areas (2,000-4,500 acres) were established across each of the North and South Rim forests, and between 1997 and 2001 ERI field crews installed almost 300 monitoring plots to measure contemporary ecosystem structure (trees, shrubs, forbs, grasses, and dead biomass) and to collect dendrochronological (tree-ring) and other ecological data used to reconstruct past forest structure and fire occurrence. The data collected in these studies have improved our knowledge of present forest conditions, as well as the historic stand structure and fire history of the forests, and helped inform management decisions in the Park.

 Grand Canyon Ecosystem Monitoring 3

Meadow in Kanabownits Canyon on the North Rim—photo by Mark Daniels

 Another benefit to installing such a large number of permanent plots across a wide landscape is the ability to study the effects of large-scale ecological processes, such as wildfires. In the past few years several wildland fire use fires have been allowed to burn through portions of the North Rim study area for their beneficial ecological effects, and ERI researchers returned afterwards to re-measure the plots. Data from these re-measurements will teach us about the ecological effects of fire in these near-natural forests, and inform us of how other south-western forests should function after restoration treatments. Preliminary analyses suggest that old-growth pine forests on Powell Plateau were relatively resilient to low-intensity fires, while high-intensity fires in spruce-fir forests have changed the understory communities by increasing diversity and composition.

 Grand Canyon Ecosystem Monitoring 4

ERI researchers re-measuring a monitoring plot on Powell Plateau, about one year after a managed wildfire burned across the plateau—photo by ERI 

Project Status:

No new monitoring plots are planned for the present, but as mentioned above, many of the existing plots have been re-measured after wildfires, and the site continues to provide valuable data.

For More Information:

Contact Mike Stoddard, at




  • Fulé, P.Z. 2010. Wildfire ecology and management at Grand Canyon, USA: tree-ring applications in forest fire history and modeling. Pages 365-381 in M.Stoffel et al. (eds.), Tree Rings and Natural Hazards: A State-of-the-Art, Advances in Global Change Research 41, DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-8736-2_34, Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010.
  • Fulé, P.Z., T.A. Heinlein, W.W. Covington, and M.M. Moore. 2000. Continuing fire regimes in remote forests of Grand Canyon National Park. USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-15. pp.242-248.
  • Kaufmann, G.A., and W.W. Covington. 2001. Effect of prescribed burning on mortality of presettlement ponderosa pines in Grand Canyon National Park.USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-22. pp.36-42.
  • Laughlin, D.C., and P.Z. Fulé. 2006. Meeting forest ecosystem objectives with wildland fire use. Fire Management Today 66(4):21-24.

 Grand Canyon Ecosystem Monitoring 5 Fire Point

Sunset light on pines and wildflowers at Fire Point, on the North Rim—photo by Daniel Laughlin

Last updated:

January 20, 2012