Restoring plant species diversity and community composition in a ponderosa pine-bunchgrass ecosystem

Abstract

Monitoring of ecological restoration treatments often focuses on changes in community structure and function. We suggest that long-term changes in community composition also need to be explicitly considered when evaluating the success of restoration treatments. In 1992, we initiated an experiment in a ponderosa pine-bunchgrass ecosystem to evaluate responses to restoration treatments: (a) thinning the overstory vegetation (‘thinning’), (b) thinning plus forest floor manipulation with periodic prescribed burning (‘composite’), and (c) untreated ‘control.’ Treatments were further stratified by forest patch type: presettlement tree clumps (trees that established prior to the onset of fire exclusion in 1876), patches of retained postsettlement trees, patches where all postsettlement trees were removed, and remnant grass openings. Species richness did not differ among treatments for 10 years, but was highest in the composite treatment in 11th and 12th year after initial treatment. Community composition diverged among treatments 5 years after initial treatment, and compositional changes were greatest in the composite treatment. Species richness and composition differed among patch types prior to treatment. Remnant grass patches were the most diverse and presettlement patches were the least diverse. Following treatment, species richness in the postsettlement removed and retained patches, gradually approached levels found in remnant grass patches. Compositional differences among patch types changed a little by 2005. Species richness at the 2 m2 scale increased only where the overstory was thinned and the understory was burned. However, these changes may not be detectable for many years, and can vary temporally in response to events such as severe droughts. Nonnative species establishment may be reduced by scheduling longer burn intervals or by refraining from burning where fuel loads are not hazardous, though these options may hinder goals of increasing diversity. Restoring species diversity and community composition continues to be more difficult than restoring ecosystem structure and function.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the staff and students of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University (NAU). Particular thanks go to W. W. Covington, P. Z. Fulé, J. P. Roccaforte, J. Barber, L. Labate, M. Stoddard, L. Machina, and S. Curran. Thanks to the USDA Forest Service Coconino National Forest, especially for assistance with prescribed burns, and the Rocky Mountain Research Station, especially C. Edminster, for helping establish the experiment. Funding was provided by a National Science Foundation grant (DEB-9322706), McIntire-Stennis appropriations to the NAU School of Forestry, and the Ecological Restoration Institute. Funding for remeasurement and analysis in 2004 was provided by the USDA Forest Service, #03-DG-11031600–088.

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Correspondence to Daniel C. Laughlin.

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Laughlin, D.C., Bakker, J.D., Daniels, M.L. et al. Restoring plant species diversity and community composition in a ponderosa pine-bunchgrass ecosystem. Plant Ecol 197, 139–151 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11258-007-9367-9

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Key-words

  • Long-term studies
  • Permutational MANOVA
  • Pinus ponderosa
  • Prescribed fire
  • Species richness
  • Thinning
  • Understory