Persistent effects of fire severity on ponderosa pine regeneration niches and seedling growth

TitlePersistent effects of fire severity on ponderosa pine regeneration niches and seedling growth
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsOwen, SM, Sieg, CH, Fulé, PZ, Gehring, CA, .Baggett, L, Iniguez, JM, Fornwalt, PJ, Battaglia, MA
JournalForest Ecology and Management
Date Published2020
KeywordsArizona, Forst resilience, Pinus ponderosa, soils, surface fuels, understory plant communities

Several recent studies have documented how fire severity affects the density and spatial patterns of tree regeneration
in western North American ponderosa pine forests. However, less is known about the effects of fire
severity on fine-scale tree regeneration niche attributes such as understory plant composition and cover, surface
fuel abundance, and soil properties, or how these attributes in turn affect regenerating ponderosa pine growth.
Using 1-m2 plots centered on 360 ponderosa pine seedlings that regenerated naturally after the Pumpkin Fire in
2000 in Arizona, we quantified regeneration niche attributes 13 years post-fire and measured their associations
with seedling growth 11–16 years post-fire. Plots were established in a) unburned, b) moderate-severity, and two
types of high-severity (100% tree mortality) burns, either c) adjacent to residual live forest edges (high-severity
edge plots), or d) > 200 m from any residual live trees (high-severity interior plots). We found that all burned
plots had greater understory plant species richness, percent cover of forbs, exotic plants and coarse wood, as well
as higher soil pH, sand and gravel content, and lower soil clay content compared to unburned plots. Highseverity
burn plots had the greatest total understory plant and shrub cover, the most herbaceous fine fuel biomass,
and tended to have the highest soil nitrogen content compared to other burn severity classes. Ponderosa
pine growth (i.e., stem diameter at root collar (DRC) and length of terminal leader) was lowest in the unburned
compared to burned plots, and ponderosa pine terminal leader growth was consistently greater in the highseverity
edge plots compared to other severities. Finally, niche characteristics such as overstory tree canopy
cover (−), soil phosphate (+), and cover of coarse wood (+), forbs (+), and the native grasses, mountain
muhly (+) and squirreltail (−), were important explanatory variables of ponderosa pine growth. Exotic plant
cover did not have a negative association with ponderosa pine growth. These results suggest that if ponderosa
pine seeds can disperse and germinate, and if seedlings can survive the first few critical years after germination,
then low overstory canopy cover and abundant forbs or coarse wood may be associated with increased growth
rates. Alternatively, forbs may be responding to the same site benefits as the seedling; and abundant forbs, coarse
wood, and fine fuels might also put seedlings at increased risk of mortality from subsequent fire, at least until
they are taller and more fire resistant.