Ecological - Second Order
Extensive woodland expansion in the Great Basin has generated concern regarding ecological impacts of tree encroachment on sagebrush rangelands and strategies for restoring sagebrush steppe. This study used rainfall (0.5 m2 and 13 m2 scales) and concentrated flow simulations and measures of vegetation, ground cover, and soils to investigate hydrologic and erosion impacts of western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis Hook.) encroachment into sagebrush steppe and to evaluate short-term effects of burning and tree cutting on runoff and erosion responses. The overall effects of tree encroachment were a reduction in understory vegetation and formation of highly erodible, bare intercanopy between trees. Runoff and erosion from high-intensity rainfall (102 mm*h^-1, 13 m2 plots) were generally low from unburned areas underneath tree canopies (13 mm and 48 g*m^-2) and were higher from the unburned intercanopy (43 mm and 272 g*m^-2). Intercanopy erosion increased linearly with runoff and exponentially where bare ground exceeded 60%. Erosion from simulated concentrated flow was 15- to 25-fold greater from the unburned intercanopy than unburned tree canopy areas. Severe burning amplified erosion from tree canopy plots by a factor of 20 but had a favorable effect on concentrated flow erosion from the intercanopy. Two years postfire, erosion remained 20-fold greater on burned than unburned tree plots, but concentrated flow erosion from the intercanopy (76% of study area) was reduced by herbaceous recruitment. The results indicate burning may amplify runoff and erosion immediately postfire. However, we infer burning that sustains residual understory cover and stimulates vegetation productivity may provide long-term reduction of soil loss relative to woodland persistence. Simply placing cut-downed trees into the unburned intercanopy had minimal immediate impact on infiltration and soil loss. Results suggest cut-tree treatments should focus on establishing tree debris contact with the soil surface if treatments are expected to reduce short-term soil loss during the postcut understory recruitment period.