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79 years of monitoring demonstrates dramatic forest change

In many forests of the western US, increased potential for fires of uncharacteristic intensity and severity is frequently attributed to structural changes brought about by fire exclusion, past land management practices, and climate. Extent of forest change and effect on understory vegetation over time are not well understood, but such information is useful to forest management focused on restoring biodiversity and resilience to these ecosystems.

Scientists re-measured three large (4 ha) historical «Methods of Cutting» (MC) plots in mixed-conifer forest of the central Sierra Nevada installed in 1929 to evaluate the effects of different logging methods. Trees P10 cm were surveyed across the entire plots and understory vegetation (tree seedlings, shrubs, and herbaceous species) was quantified within quadrats in the old-growth condition in 1929 prior to logging, later in 1929 after logging, and again in 2007 or 2008. We also compared forest structure in the MC plots with an adjacent unlogged «control» area and collected fire scar samples from nearby stumps to evaluate the historical fire regime.

The contemporary tree density in the MC plots (739 trees ha-1) was 2.4 times greater than the 1929 pre-logging density (314 trees ha-1). Trees in the small and intermediate size classes (10–75 cm dbh) were significantly over-represented, and trees in the larger size classes (>90 cm dbh) generally significantly under-represented, compared with historical conditions. The proportion of pine dropped from 37% of tree basal area in 1929 to 21% in 2007/08. Density of small to intermediate sized trees was similar in the contemporary logged and unlogged control plots, suggesting that over the long term, ingrowth may have been influenced more by lack of fire than historical logging.

Change to non-tree vegetation was most pronounced for shrub cover, which averaged 28.6% in 1929 but only 2.5% in 2008. CART analysis indicated that the highest shrub cover in 1929 was in areas having four or fewer trees growing within 15 m to the south of the quadrat, suggesting that reduced light was the most likely explanation for the decline over time. Herbaceous species richness in 2008 was significantly lower than in 1931, two years after logging, but did not differ significantly from 1929, prior to logging. Understory vegetation should benefit from thinning or prescribed fire treatments that lead to a greater abundance of higher light environments within stands.



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