Long-term effects of high intensity prescribed fire on vegetation dynamics in the Wine Spring Creek Watershed, Western North Carolina, USA
We examined the long-term effects of a prescribed fire in a southern Appalachian watershed in Nantahala National Forest, western North Carolina, USA. Fire was prescribed in 1995 on this site by forest managers to restore a degraded pine (Pinus spp.)-hardwood community, specifically to stimulate forage production, promote pine and oak (Quercus spp.) regeneration, and increase plant diversity. Before and after the prescribed fire, permanent plots were sampled across a south-facing hillslope, which corresponded to three community types: mesic, near-stream cove (riparian); dry, mixed-oak (mid-slope); and xeric, pine-hardwood (ridge). In an earlier paper, we reported the first two years of post-burn vegetation response from this prescribed burn. In our current study, we compared the pre-burn (1994) forest condition with 10 years post-burn (2005) vegetation measurements to determine the effects of fire on the mortality and regeneration of overstory trees, understory shrubs, and herbaceous-layer species. Overstory mortality was high immediately after the burn at the ridge location and ten years after the fire. Mortality of pitch pine (Pinus rigida Miller) (91.8 %) and hickory (Carya spp.) (77.5 %) reduced overstory basal area from 26.97 m2 ha-1 pre-burn to 18.86 m2 ha-1 post-burn in 1995 and to 9.13 m2 ha-1 in 2005. At the mid-slope and riparian locations, no significant overstory mortality occurred over time. Understory density was significantly higher 10 years after the burn (2005) than pre-burn, and basal area had returned to pre-burn levels. Density of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia L.), black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata [Wang.] K. Koch), and blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) had increased due to prolific sprouting. The prescribed fire had varying effects on diversity across the hillslope gradient over time. On the ridge, overstory diversity declined following the fire (H’basal area = 1.14 in 1994, H’basal area = 0.75 in 1995, and H’basal area = 0.80 in 2005). Diversity significantly increased in the herbaceous layer and remained higher than pre-burn conditions through 2005 (H’cover = 1.02 in 1994, H’cover = 1.97 in 1995, and H’cover = 2.25 in 2005). For the mid-slope and riparian positions, no change in diversity was observed in the overstory, understory or herbaceous layer.