Restoring open canopy pine barrens from the ground up: Repeated burns correspond with increased soil hydraulic conductivity
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Science of The Total Environment
Prescribed fire is widely used for ecosystem restoration, yet the mechanisms that determine its effectiveness remain poorly characterized. Because soil hydrology influences ecosystem processes like erosion, runoff, and plant competition, it is important to understand how fire affects soil hydrology. A systematic approach to understanding relationships among vegetation, topography, and fire is needed to advance knowledge of how fire influences soil properties that in turn affect restoration success. Our objective was to characterize relationships among burn severity, vegetation, and soil hydrology in a heterogenous landscape under restoration management. Our study took place in a barrens-forestmosaicwith recent prescribed fire history ranging from0 to 10 burns since 1960, and additional variation in fuel loading, burn severity, vegetation cover, topography, and soils.Wemeasured soil hydraulic conductivity (SHC) during two consecutive years, which represented control, prefire, postfire, and 1-year postfire conditions. Regression tree analysis identified an important threshold effect of antecedent soil moisture on SHC; soilswith initial moisture < 13% had lower SHC than soils with initialmoisture > 13%. Furthermore, above this threshold, sites with intermediate to high recent burn frequency (4–10 burns) had significantly greater SHC than unburned control sites. High fuel loads associated with brush cutting and piling increased SHC at barrens sites but not brush or pine sites, suggesting an interaction between vegetation cover and fire effects on SHC. At the local hillslope scale, toe-slopes had greater SHC than summits. Our results suggest that repeated prescribed fires of moderate to high frequency may enhance SHC, thereby reducing soil water retention and potentially restoring functional pine barren processes that limit woody plant growth. Prescribed fire may therefore be an important management tool for reversing mesophication and restoring a global array of open canopy ecosystems.
KeywordsBurn severity Pine barrens Mesophication Infiltration Soil organic matter Mini-disk infiltrometer Habitat restoration Woody encroachment
Quigley, Kathleen M.; Kolka, Randall; Sturtevant, Brian R.; Dickinson, Matthew B.; Kern, Christel C.; Miesel, Jessica R. 2021. Restoring open canopy pine barrens from the ground up: Repeated burns correspond with increased soil hydraulic conductivity. Science of The Total Environment. 767: 144258. 11 p. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.144258.