Long-term changes in forest composition and diversity following early logging (1919–1923) and the decline of American chestnut (Castanea dentata)
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Chestnut blight fungus (Endothia parasitica [Murr.] P.J. And. & H.W. And.)) is a classic example of an invasive species, which severely damaged populations of its host, Castanea dentata, and had widespread and long-term impacts on eastern North American forests. Concurrently, forests were further disturbed by lumbering, which was common across the region from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. In 1926, local infestations of chestnut blight were reported in the Coweeta Basin, Southern Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. We used permanent plot inventories of the Basin (first sampled in 1934 and twice afterward in 1969–72 and 1988–93) to describe the distribution of species along a complex environmental gradient. Specifically, we asked: How does vegetation change over approximately 60 years following logging and the demise of C. dentata? Does the association between vegetation and environment determine the pattern of species distributions through time? Which species replaced C. dentata across this complex environmental gradient? We used nonmetric multidimensional scaling ordination and multiresponse permutation procedure for the analyses of the inventory periods. In 1934, C. dentata was the most important species in the Coweeta Basin. It was present in 98% of the plots and contributed 22% of the total density and 36% of the total basal area. Diversity increased significantly over time and was attributed to an increase in evenness of species distribution. The canopy dominant, C. dentata, was replaced by more than one species across the environmental gradient. Importance values of Quercus prinus, Acer rubrum, Cornus florida, Tsuga canadensis, and Oxydendrum arboreum increased by 2–5% across the basin following the decline of C. dentata. Tsuga canadensis increased in abundance and distribution, especially near streams across elevations. Liriodendron tulipifera replaced C. dentata in moist coves, which have low terrain shape and high organic matter content. In contrast, Q. prinus and A. rubrum were ubiquitous, much like C. dentata before the chestnut blight becoming dominant or co-dominant species across all environmental conditions.