, Volume 6, Issue 8, pp 773-785

Nitrogen Export from Forested Watersheds in the Oregon Coast Range: The Role of N2-fixing Red Alder

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Abstract

Variations in plant community composition across the landscape can influence nutrient retention and loss at the watershed scale. A striking example of plant species importance is the influence of N2-fixing red alder (Alnus rubra) on nutrient cycling in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. To understand the influence of red alder on watershed nutrient export, we studied the chemistry of 26 small watershed streams within the Salmon River basin of the Oregon Coast Range. Nitrate and dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) concentrations were positively related to broadleaf cover (dominated by red alder: 94% of basal area), particularly when near-coastal sites were excluded (r 2 = 0.65 and 0.68 for nitrate-N and DON, respectively). Nitrate and DON concentrations were more strongly related to broadleaf cover within entire watersheds than broadleaf cover within the riparian area alone, which indicates that leaching from upland alder stands plays an important role in watershed nitrogen (N) export. Nitrate dominated over DON in hydrologic export (92% of total dissolved N), and nitrate and DON concentrations were strongly correlated. Annual N export was highly variable among watersheds (2.4–30.8 kg N ha−1 y−1), described by a multiple linear regression combining broadleaf and mixed broadleaf–conifer cover (r 2 = 0.74). Base cation concentrations were positively related to nitrate concentrations, which suggests that nitrate leaching increases cation losses. Our findings provide evidence for strong control of ecosystem function by a single plant species, where leaching from N saturated red alder stands is a major control on N export from these coastal watersheds.