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Impacts of fire and phosphorus on sawgrass and cattails in an altered landscape of the Florida Everglades



Although fire as a critical ecological process shapes the Florida Everglades landscape, researchers lack landscape-based approach for fire management. The interactive effect of fire, nutrients, water depth, and invasive cattails (Typha spp.) on vegetation communities is of special concern for ecosystem restoration. In particular, questions concerning the effect of fire on nutrient release and, by extension, the potential thereof to stimulate sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense Crantz) re-growth and cattail expansion under varying hydrological conditions are of immediate relevance to ecologists and land managers who work to restore the Everglades.


In late April of 1999, a 42,875 ha surface fire, including a 100 ha peat fire, burned the northern section of Water Conservation Area 3A (WCA-3A) in the Everglades. In this study, total phosphorus (TP) in soil, surface water, pore-water, and vegetation was sampled at non-burned, surface-burned and peat-burned areas within one and five months after the burn. Four years after the initial fire, field data were collected in a large scale survey to analyze how the 1999 fire affected cattail distribution in the altered landscape of high soil TP and cattail habitats. Existing GIS maps were utilized to select field sampling locations and to provide additional information for the analysis.


The analyses showed that five months after the fire, sawgrass biomass re-growth was about 5 times higher in burned areas (611 ± 47 g/m2) than in non-burned areas (102 ± 18 g/m2). Sawgrass re-growth in water depths less than 30 cm was 4.9 ± 0.4 g/m2/day while sawgrass re-growth in water depths deeper than 60 cm decreased to 0.5 ± 0.3 g/m2/day. Cattail biomass re-growth in peat-burned areas was as high as 1,079 ± 38 g/m2. The data also showed that post-fire cattail expansion could be related to cattail stands existing before the fire. Furthermore, post-fire cattail appeared more significant expansion in the areas with soil TP above 900 mg/kg than in that with soil TP below 900 mg/kg.


The data showed that fire within altered landscapes (e.g. high soil TP and/or cattail) of the Everglades could stimulate the re-growth and expansion of cattails, and post-fire re-growth of sawgrass could be severely impeded by deep water after a surface-burn. This research indicates that fire continues to be an effective ecological process for maintaining the Everglades; therefore, ecologists and land managers may have to reevaluate the future management of natural fire with regard to its dynamic relationship with high soil TP and cattail expansion in the altered Everglades landscape.