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Thinning and Burning Effects on Long-Term Litter Accumulation and Function in Young Ponderosa Pine Forests

Author(s): Matt Busse, Ross Gerrard
Year Published: 2020

We measured forest-floor accumulation in ponderosa pine forests of central Oregon and asked whether selected ecological functions of the organic layer were altered by thinning and repeated burning. Experimental treatments included three thinning methods applied in 1989 (stem only, whole tree, no thin—control) in factorial combination with prescribed burning (spring 1991 and repeated in 2002; no burn—control). Forest-floor depth and mass were measured every 4–6 years from 1991 to 2015. Without fire, there was little temporal change in depth or mass for thinned (270 trees ha−1) and control (560–615 trees ha−1) treatments, indicating balanced litterfall and decay rates across these stand densities. Each burn consumed 50–70 percent of the forest floor, yet unlike thinning, postfire accumulation rates were fairly rapid, with forest-floor depth matching preburn levels within 15–20 years. Few differences in forest-floor function (litter decay, carbon storage, physical barrier restricting plant emergence, erosion protection) resulted from thinning or burning after 25 years. An exception was the loss of approximately 300 kg N ha−1 because of repeated burning, or approximately 13 percent of the total site N. This study documents long-term forest-floor development and suggests that common silvicultural practices pose few risks to organic layer functions in these forests.

Study Implications: Mechanical thinning and prescribed fire are among the most widespread management practices used to restore forests in the western US to healthy, firewise conditions. We evaluated their effects on the long-term development of litter and duff layers, which serve dual roles as essential components of soil health and as fuel for potential wildfire. Our study showed that thinning and burning provided effective fuel reduction and resulted in no adverse effects to soil quality in dry ponderosa pine forests of central Oregon. Repeated burning reduced the site carbon and nitrogen pools approximately 9–13 percent, which is small compared to C located in tree biomass and N in mineral soil. Litter accumulation after burning was rapid, and we recommend burning on at least a 15–20-year cycle to limit its build-up.

Citation: Busse M, and Gerrard R. 2020. Thinning and Burning Effects on Long-Term Litter Accumulation and Function in Young Ponderosa Pine Forests. Forest Science 66 (6), 761–769. https://doi.org/10.1093/forsci/fxaa018
Topic(s): Fire Ecology, Ecosystem Changes, Function, Fuels, Fuel Treatments & Effects, Prescribed Fire-use treatments
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 22418
Record updated: Jan 12, 2021