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Vegetation response following thinning in young Douglas-fir forests of western Oregon : can thinning accelerate development of late-successional structure and composition? Public Deposited

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  • Across western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, forest management practices over the past century reduced the amount of late-successional forest while simultaneously increasing the amount of young (less than 80 years old), managed Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) dominated forests. Recently, concerns over loss of late-successional habitat pushed management objectives on public lands away from timber production and toward maintenance and restoration of late-successional habitat. In accordance with these new objectives, The Young Stand Thinning and Diversity Study (YSTDS) was developed to test if thinning could accelerate development of latesuccessional habitat in young managed Douglas-fir forests. Though the YSTDS examines several components of forest ecosystems, the goal of this study was to investigate short-term (5-7 years post-treatment) responses of vegetation to thinning treatments and to evaluate this response in relation to long-term objectives of late-successional development. The study is located on the western slope of the central Oregon Cascades. It consists of four replications of four thinning treatments (treatment areas average 30 ha each) in 30-50 year old second-growth Douglas-fir forest stands. Treatments include a control, heavy thin, light thin, and light thin with gaps. Unlike traditional thinning, the thinning treatments in this study sought to maintain and enhance overstory structural diversity by: (1) retaining species other than Douglas-fir, (2) simulating low densities that characterized development of some old-growth stands, and (3) adding canopy gaps to enhance spatial diversity. Following treatment completion, first, third, and fifth-year vegetation responses were measured Results for overstory vegetation indicate that heavy thinning may accelerate development of large trees, one important component of old-growth structure. This was evident by faster growth of the largest trees in the heavy thin than in the control. A heavy thin may also permit more time for understory development than a lighter thin because canopies of heavy thinned stands remained open longer than canopies of light thinned stands. Variation in overstory cover, which may promote heterogeneous understory development, was higher in the treatment that included canopy gaps than in other treatments including the control. Although accelerated development of a multi-layered canopy was not evident in any treatment, retention of non-dominant tree species prevented simplification of vertical canopy structure by retaining layers that are typically removed by a low thinning prescription. In addition, mortality of non-dominant species was not greater in thinned treatments than in the control. In the understory, results suggest that thinning can increase abundance of some vegetative layers without encouraging homogenization of the understory by clonal shrubs or exotic species. The thinnings resulted in initial declines of bryophytes, tall shrubs, and low shrubs followed by subsequent recovery and growth. While herbs displayed little initial response, a release of early-seral species was evident by 5-7 years post-treatment. Initial changes following thinning were likely due to harvesting damage and/or alteration of microclimate while subsequent changes were probably also related to increased resource availability. It is expected that eventually similarities and differences in overstory structure among thinned treatments will be reflected in the understory. For example, variation in canopy cover created by the addition of canopy gaps was already reflected in the understory, as plant assemblages differed across the gradient from gaps to the thinned forest matrix. Hence, although understory vegetation was similar among heavy and light thins in the short-term, early closure of the canopy following a light thin could preclude continuation of late-seral understory development. Finally, the effect of canopy gaps on the understory was more apparent at a within-stand scale than at a stand scale. Had the within-stand scale been ignored, relevant information regarding understory response would have been overlooked. This indicates that spatial scale should be considered when assessing ecological patterns. In conclusion, it is acknowledged that there are drawbacks to thinning (e.g., certain species decline following thinning) It is also acknowledged that the short-term nature of the data permits only speculation regarding long-term succession. While these limitations are recognized, current trends indicate that a moderate to heavy thinning in combination with gap formation can hasten development of late-successional features in thinned stands relative to unthinned stands. Thus, thinning similar to that used in this study can be one useful tool in the management of young Douglas-fir forests.
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