Stable, low-growing plant communities in the western Cascade Mountains : species processes and their implications for rights-of-way management Public Deposited


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  • The processes that lead to stable, low-growing plant communities and the characteristics of the species that form them are of great interest to rights-of-way (ROW) managers and others wishing to better understand plant community resistance to tree invasion on managed landscapes. The use of stable, low-growing plant communities as a mechanism to control tree invasion on ROWs has been widely acknowledged, but little is known about what plant characteristics lead to stable communities or how different treatment methods affect low-growing communities in the Pacific Northwest. The goal of this study was to assess the resistance of stable, low-growing communities to tree invasion on ROW in the Pacific Northwest and to identify common characteristics among the species in these communities that contributed to the formation of stable communities. To address this goal, we investigated 1) the abilities of different species within the low-growing component of the ROW communities to resist invasion by trees and to fill newly created gaps caused by disturbance, 2) the growth patterns and potential for vegetative reproduction of trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus Cham and Schlecht) and creeping snowberry (Symphoricarpos mollis Nutt.) to understand how different clonal propagation patterns affect spread into unoccupied space and infilling of currently colonized areas, and 3) the effectiveness of several common vegetation control methods for reducing the density of undesirable species and promoting the development of lowgrowing plant communities on ROW. These factors are important processes that determine the stability of a low-growing plant community. This project was conducted at three sites in the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Washington. Species composition and abundance was measured in roughly 330 2x2 m plots at each site prior to the application of three different treatments aimed at removing tall-growing target species. The plots were measured again two years later to assess changes in species cover. The growth pattern and architecture of trailing blackberry and creeping snowberry was also investigated through the careful excavation of both individual plants and lxi m plots centered in dense thickets of each species. The various treatments used in this study resulted in an average increase in nontarget cover of 65% from 2000 to 2002 while reducing tall target cover by an average of 53%. No difference was found in the change in average nontarget cover or tall target cover among treatments. The effectiveness of the various treatments in reducing target cover varied significantly based on the type of target species being treated. There were no strong differences in resistance among the common lowgrowing species to invasion by tall target species. The range in increase in tall target cover in plots dominated by low-growing species was highly skewed, as tall target cover increased very little in many plots and by as much as 28% in a very few. In the first two years following disturbance, shrubs capable of rapid horizontal expansion through vegetative reproduction, such as trailing blackberry and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), were most successful filling gaps. Their ability to expand rapidly led to their high abundance following disturbance. The successful colonization of gaps by trailing blackberry was a result of its growth pattern, which focused on rapid spread as this species produced new canes annually that grew up to 1.9 m during their first year. This may allow it to be a successful colonizer of gaps. It was also capable of forming dense thickets and averaged 113 stems/m2. The growth pattern of creeping snowberry, which focused more on infilling, may allow it to maintain areas of dense, persistent cover, as it averaged 237 stems/m2 in dense thickets. It was also capable of horizontal spread through the initiation of new ramets along creeping stems. These stems averaged 0.6 m during their first year of growth. Both strategies of growth and spread allowed these shrubs to form thickets of dense vegetation. The use of stable low-growing plant communities as a management tool to reduce tree seedling establishment and growth can have many benefits including reduced costs due to lower tree density and longer periods of time between treatments, increased wildlife habitat, and aesthetic appeal. However, for this management approach to be most successful, one must have an understanding of the plant community where it is being applied, the plant characteristics that will lead to the formation of stable, low-growing communities, and how the different available treatment options will affect the resulting plant community. This study addressed many of these topics to produce a more comprehensive understanding of how stable, low-growing plant communities can be used as a management tool for reducing tree invasion in the Pacific Northwest. The two-year duration of this study, while allowing for many new insights, limited the scope of some of our conclusions. Continued monitoring of these research sites, as has been done in several locations in the northeast United States, would greatly increase the strength of our conclusions.
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