Effects of long-term fire exclusion on tree species composition and stand structure in an old-growth Pinus palustris (Longleaf pine) forest

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Frequent fire is an integral component of longleaf pine ecosystems, creating environmental conditions favoring survival and growth of juvenile pines. This study examined stand structure, species composition, and longleaf pine regeneration in an old-growth tract of longleaf pine forest (Boyd Tract) experiencing long-term (> 80 yr) fire exclusion in the Sandhills of North Carolina. Sampling of woody stems (i.e., ≥2.5 cm diameter at breast height) and tallies of longleaf pine seedlings were carried out in plots established randomly on upland, mesic areas and lowland, xeric areas within the Boyd Tract. Dominant woody species in mesic plots were black oak, hickories, and large, sparse longleaf pines. Xeric plots had high densities of turkey oak with the large longleaf pines, as well as higher frequencies of smaller longleaf stems. These differences between areas were associated with higher clay content of upland soils and higher sand content of lowland soils. Age-class frequency distributions for fire-suppressed longleaf pine following the last wildfire at the Boyd Tract approximately 80 yr ago contrasted sharply with data from an old-growth longleaf tract in southern Georgia (Wade Tract) that has been under a long-term frequent fire regime. Post-burn recruitment for the Boyd Tract wildfire appears to have been initially high on both site types. Longleaf pine recruitment diminished sharply on the mesic site, but remained high for ~60 yr on the xeric site. Currently, longleaf pine regeneration is minimal on both site types; several plots contained no seedlings. Sharp contrasts in longleaf pine dominance and stand structure between the Boyd and Wade Tracts demonstrate the importance of large-scale disturbance, especially hurricanes and fire, in shaping the structure and function of longleaf pine ecosystems of the southeastern United States. In particular, long-term exclusion of fire on the Boyd Tract has altered stand structure dramatically by permitting hardwoods to occupy at high densities the characteristically large gaps between longleaf stems that are maintained by fire and other disturbances.

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Plant Ecology

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