Effects of native forest restoration on soil hydraulic properties, Auwahi, Maui, Hawaiian Islands

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Abstract

[1] Over historic time Hawai‘i's dryland forests have been largely replaced by grasslands for grazing livestock. On-going efforts have been undertaken to restore dryland forests to bring back native species and reduce erosion. The reestablishment of native ecosystems on land severely degraded by long-term alternative use requires reversal of the impacts of erosion, organic-matter loss, and soil structural damage on soil hydraulic properties. This issue is perhaps especially critical in dryland forests where the soil must facilitate native plants' optimal use of limited water. These reforestation efforts depend on restoring soil ecological function, including soil hydraulic properties. We hypothesized that reforestation can measurably change soil hydraulic properties over restoration timescales. At a site on the island of Maui (Hawai‘i, USA), we measured infiltration capacity, hydrophobicity, and abundance of preferential flow channels in a deforested grassland and in an adjacent area where active reforestation has been going on for fourteen years. Compared to the nearby deforested rangeland, mean field-saturated hydraulic conductivity in the newly restored forest measured by 55 infiltrometer tests was greater by a factor of 2.0. Hydrophobicity on an 8-point scale increased from average category 6.0 to 6.9. A 4-point empirical categorization of preferentiality in subsurface wetting patterns increased from an average 1.3 in grasslands to 2.6 in the restored forest. All of these changes act to distribute infiltrated water faster and deeper, as appropriate for native plant needs. This study indicates that vegetation restoration can lead to ecohydrologically important changes in soil hydraulic properties over decadal time scales.

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