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Alteration and Recovery of Slash Pile Burn Sites in the Restoration of a Fire-Maintained Ecosystem

Authors

  • Michelle N. Creech,

    Corresponding author
    1. Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, 3988 Jones Center Drive, Newton, GA 39870, U.S.A.
    2. Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia, 140 E. Green Street, Athens, GA 30602, U.S.A.
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  • L. Katherine Kirkman,

    1. Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, 3988 Jones Center Drive, Newton, GA 39870, U.S.A.
    2. Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia, 140 E. Green Street, Athens, GA 30602, U.S.A.
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  • Lawrence A. Morris

    1. Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of Georgia, 180 E. Green Street, Athens, GA 30602, U.S.A.
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M. Creech, email mncreech@gmail.com

Abstract

Restoration practices incorporating timber harvest (e.g. to remove undesirable species or reduce tree densities) may generate unmerchantable wood debris that is piled and burned for fuel reduction. Slash pile burns are common in longleaf pine ecosystem restoration that involves hardwood removal before reintroduction of frequent prescribed fire. In this context, long-lasting effects of slash pile burns may complicate restoration outcomes due to unintended alterations to vegetation, soils, and the soil seed bank. In this study, our objectives were to (1) examine alterations to the soil seed bank, soil physical and chemical characteristics, and initial vegetation recolonization following burn and (2) determine the rate of return of soil and vegetation characteristics to pre-burn conditions. We found that burning of slash piles (composed of scores of whole trees) results in elevated nutrient levels and significant impacts on vegetation and the soil seed bank, which remain evident for at least 6 years following burn. In this ecosystem, formerly weakly acidic soils become neutral to basic and levels of P remain significantly higher. Following an initial decrease after burn, total soil N increases with time since burn. These changes suggest that not only does pile burning create a fire scar initially devoid of biota, but it also produces an altered soil chemical environment, with possible consequences for long-term ecosystem restoration efforts in landscapes including numerous fire scars. To facilitate restoration trajectories, further adaptive management to incorporate native plant propagules or suppress encroaching hardwoods within fire scars may be warranted in fire-dependent ecosystems.

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