Disturbance and dynamics of riparian forests in southwestern Oregon Public Deposited

http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/j098zc94z

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  • Fire exclusion has been associated with structural and compositional changes in many upland forests of the western United States, but little is known about the impacts on riparian forests, portions of the landscape protected for habitat and water quality. For this study, I characterized the historic disturbance and tree recruitment processes of riparian forests in southwestern Oregon. I identified the ways in which riparian forest structure and composition have changed over the past 100 to 150 years, with a particular focus on the effects of fire exclusion. I used dendro-ecological methods to analyze tree ring data collected in riparian forest stands of two vegetation types in the Rogue River basin of southwestern Oregon: the mesic 'Mixed Conifer' zone (Pinus-Pseudotsuga-Calocedrus-Abies) and the more xeric 'Interior Valley' zone (Pinus-Quercus-Pseudotsuga). My results suggest riparian forests in both vegetation zones developed with frequent disturbance by fire and that, since fire has been excluded, these forests have entered a new successional trajectory. In the Mixed Conifer zone, tree recruitment in the pre-settlement period appears to have been driven by the interaction between climatic fluctuations and mixed-severity fires, which historically maintained multi-aged stands of shade-intolerant species. Patches of highseverity fire within the mixed-severity matrix created large canopy gaps (>30 m in diameter) in which new cohorts of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) could establish within existing stands and perpetuate Douglas-fir overstory dominance. Tree recruitment appears to have been closely linked Since fire exclusion became effective, there has been an increase in tree density and a shift toward the establishment of white fir (Abies concolor), a fire-sensitive, shade-tolerant species. In the Interior Valley zone, riparian forests were most likely shaped by a low-severity fire regime. Frequent fires likely killed most tree seedlings and maintained open savannas or woodlands with shade-intolerant hardwoods and scattered, open-grown conifers. Fire exclusion in the Interior Valley zone has resulted in exceptionally high survival rates in Douglas-fir recruited during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This led to the establishment of a closed-canopy conifer forest with fewer shade-intolerant hardwoods, which are an important source of food and habitat for wildlife. My findings suggest future management guidelines for riparian forests in fire-prone forests of the Pacific Northwest should consider the substantial and potentially undesirable ecological effects of the current hands-off management policy in riparian forests. Future proposals to attempt restoration of pre-settlement forest structure and composition in upland forests should also consider including restoration treatments within adjoining riparian forests.
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