Forest harvesting and wildfire were widespread in the upper Great Lakes region of North America during the early 20th century. We examined how long this legacy of disturbance constrains forest carbon (C) storage rates by quantifying C pools and fluxes after harvest and fire in a mixed deciduous forest chronosequence in northern lower Michigan, USA. Study plots ranged in age from 6 to 68 years and were created following experimental clear-cut harvesting and fire disturbance. Annual C storage was estimated biometrically from measurements of wood, leaf, fine root, and woody debris mass, mass losses to herbivory, soil C content, and soil respiration. Maximum annual C storage in stands that were disturbed by harvest and fire twice was 26% less than a reference stand receiving the same disturbance only once. The mechanism for this reduction in annual C storage was a long-lasting decrease in site quality that endured over the 62-year timeframe examined. However, during regrowth the harvested and burned forest rapidly became a net C sink, storing 0.53 Mg C ha−1 yr−1 after 6 years. Maximum net ecosystem production (1.35 Mg C ha−1 yr−1) and annual C increment (0.95 Mg C ha−1 yr−1) were recorded in the 24- and 50-year-old stands, respectively. Net primary production averaged 5.19 Mg C ha−1 yr−1 in experimental stands, increasing by < 10% from 6 to 50 years. Soil heterotrophic respiration was more variable across stand ages, ranging from 3.85 Mg C ha−1 yr−1 in the 6-year-old stand to 4.56 Mg C ha−1 yr−1 in the 68-year-old stand. These results suggest that harvesting and fire disturbances broadly distributed across the region decades ago caused changes in site quality and successional status that continue to limit forest C storage rates.
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