Structure and composition changes following restoration treatments of longleaf pine forests on the Gulf Coastal Plain of Alabama
Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris Mill.) forests of the Gulf Coastal Plain historically burned every 2–4 years with low intensity fires, which maintained open stands with herbaceous dominated understories. During the early and mid 20th century however, reduced fire frequency allowed fuel to accumulate and hardwoods to increase in the midstory and overstory layers, while woody shrubs gained understory dominance. In 2001, a research study was installed in southern Alabama to develop management options that could be used to reduce fuel loads and restore the ecosystem. As part of a nationwide fire and fire surrogates study, treatments included a control (no fire or other disturbance), prescribed burning only, thinning of selected trees, thinning plus prescribed burning, and herbicide plus prescribed burning. After two cycles of prescribed burning, applied biennially during the growing season, there were positive changes in ecosystem composition. Although thinning treatments produced revenue, while reducing midstory hardwoods and encouraging growth of a grassy understory, burning was needed to discourage regrowth of the hardwood midstory and woody understory. Herbicide application followed by burning gave the quickest changes in understory composition, but repeated applications of fire eventually produced the same results at the end of this 8-year study. Burning was found to be a critical component of any restoration treatment for longleaf communities of this region with positive changes in overstory, midstory and understory layers after just three or four burns applied every 2 or 3 years.