Understory response to varying fire frequencies after 20 years of prescribed burning in an upland oak forest
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- Burton, J.A., Hallgren, S.W., Fuhlendorf, S.D. et al. Plant Ecol (2011) 212: 1513. doi:10.1007/s11258-011-9926-y
Ecosystems in the eastern United States that were shaped by fire over thousands of years of anthropogenic burning recently have been subjected to fire suppression resulting in significant changes in vegetation composition and structure and encroachment by invasive species. Renewed interest in use of fire to manage such ecosystems will require knowledge of effects of fire regime on vegetation. We studied the effects of one aspect of the fire regime, fire frequency, on biomass, cover and diversity of understory vegetation in upland oak forests prescribe-burned for 20 years at different frequencies ranging from zero to five fires per decade. Overstory canopy closure ranged from 88 to 96% and was not affected by fire frequency indicating high tolerance of large trees for even the most frequent burning. Understory species richness and cover was dominated by woody reproduction followed in descending order by forbs, C3 graminoids, C4 grasses, and legumes. Woody plant understory cover did not change with fire frequency and increased 30% from one to three years after a burn. Both forbs and C3 graminoids showed a linear increase in species richness and cover as fire frequency increased. In contrast, C4 grasses and legumes did not show a response to fire frequency. The reduction of litter by fire may have encouraged regeneration of herbaceous plants and helped explain the positive response of forbs and C3 graminoids to increasing fire frequency. Our results showed that herbaceous biomass, cover, and diversity can be managed with long-term prescribed fire under the closed canopy of upland oak forests.