The long-term case for partial-cutting over clear-cutting in the southern Appalachians USA
Prior to the 1950s, common partial harvesting operations in the southern Appalachians USA involved the removal of logs by ground-skidding and the construction of steep access roads and skid trails along stream channels. Little is known about how these historical practices affected long-term vegetation changes. An experimental watershed in the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory was partially harvested in the years 1942–1952 according to these exploitive practices. We compared the partial-cut watershed to a clear-cut watershed and an untreated, reference watershed. Using long-term vegetation surveys, we analyzed patterns in aboveground biomass accumulation, species composition and diversity (Shannon’s index Hʹ and species richness) among watersheds. Contrary to our expectations, the partial-cut watershed recovered to reference levels of aboveground biomass and their species composition was similar over time. The clear-cut watershed had greater abundance of tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) than the other two watersheds. The partial-cut watershed increased in diversity over time, but it remained less diverse than the reference watershed; whereas, the clear-cut watershed had lower diversity than the other two watersheds, and its diversity did not change over time. Distributions of functional groups based on water use and nutrient acquisition traits, and shade tolerance were similar between the partial-cut and the reference watersheds, but differed from the clear-cut watershed. By the 2010s, partial-cut and reference watersheds had similar proportions of diffuse-porous (32% and 33%) and ring-porous (48% and 42%) basal area, while the clear-cut watershed had more diffuse-porous (43%) and less ring-porous (36%) species than the partial-cut or reference watersheds. Tree species associated with arbuscular mycorrhiza were more abundant in the clear-cut watershed than the partial-cut or reference watersheds. Overall, the partial-cut watershed, even with the extreme soil disturbance, did not alter long-term species composition and diversity as dramatically as the clear-cut watershed. These results could help forest managers, conservationists, and hydrologists understand the long-term effects of partial-cutting versus clear-cutting.