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Decomposition Patterns of Foliar Litter and Deadwood in Managed and Unmanaged Stands: A 13-Year Experiment in Boreal Mixedwoods

Abstract

Litter decomposition is a major driver of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycles in forest ecosystems and has major implications for C sequestration and nutrient availability. However, empirical information regarding long-term decomposition rates of foliage and wood remains rare. In this study, we assessed long-term C and N dynamics (12–13 years) during decomposition of foliage and wood for three boreal tree species, under a range of harvesting intensities and slash treatments. We used model selection based on the second-order Akaike’s Information Criterion to determine which decomposition model had the most support. The double-exponential model provided a good fit to C mass loss for foliage of trembling aspen, white spruce, and balsam fir, as well as aspen wood. These litters underwent a rapid initial phase of leaching and mineralisation, followed by a slow decomposition. In contrast, for spruce and fir wood, the single-exponential model had the most support. The long-term average decay rate of wood was faster than that of foliage for aspen, but not of conifers. However, we found no evidence that fir and spruce wood decomposed at slower rates than the recalcitrant fraction of their foliage. The critical C:N ratios, at which net N mineralisation began, were higher for wood than for foliage. Long-term decay rates following clear-cutting were either similar or faster than those observed in control stands, depending on litter material, tree species, and slash treatment. The critical C:N ratios were reached later and decreased for all conifer litters following stem-only clear-cutting, indicating increased N retention in harvested sites with high slash loads. Partial harvesting had weak effects on C and N dynamics of decaying litters. A comprehensive understanding of the long-term patterns and controls of C and N dynamics following forest disturbance would improve our ability to forecast the implications of forest harvesting for C sequestration and nutrient availability.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Josée Frenette, Mylène Bélanger, Émilie Robert, Alfred Coulombe, and Mario Major for field assistance, Serge Rousseau for laboratory analyses, and William F. J. Parsons for English revision. We are also thankful to two anonymous reviewers and Dr. Stephen Hart for their comprehensive review of the manuscript. This study was supported by grants from the Programme de financement de la recherche et du développement en aménagement forestier of the Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs du Québec, from the Cooperative Research Development Program to Drapeau and collaborators (NSERC, RDC475301-14), and Discovery Grant to Brais (NSERCs 217118) of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, by the Lake Duparquet Research and Teaching Forest, and by the industrial partner Tembec Inc.

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Correspondence to Manuella Strukelj.

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MS performed field and laboratory work and is the lead researcher on decomposition models and the first author of the manuscript. SB designed the study and is the principal investigator for the Safe project. MJM contributed to data analyses. DP contributed to laboratory analyses. PD coordinated the overall project. All authors contributed ideas and commented on the multiple drafts of the manuscript.

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Strukelj, M., Brais, S., Mazerolle, M.J. et al. Decomposition Patterns of Foliar Litter and Deadwood in Managed and Unmanaged Stands: A 13-Year Experiment in Boreal Mixedwoods. Ecosystems 21, 68–84 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-017-0135-y

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Keywords

  • long-term decay rate
  • woody debris
  • foliage
  • partial cutting
  • clear-cut
  • C:N ratio
  • litterbag