Long-term effects of dormant-season prescribed fire on plant community diversity, structure and productivity in a longleaf pine wiregrass ecosystem
A flatwoods longleaf pine wiregrass ecosystem, which regenerated naturally following wildfire in 1942, on the Coastal Plain of southern Georgia was treated over a period of four decades with prescribed fire at annual, biennial and triennial intervals during the winter dormant season. Burning caused substantial changes in the understory plant community, with significant reductions in the folkcover of Zlex glabra in the shrub layer resulting in corresponding increases in the cover of Vaccinium myrsinites, Sporobolus curtissii, Aristidastricta and Andropogonspp. Understory plant species richness, diversity and evenness also increased as a result of periodic fire. Dormant-season burning decreased the cover of litter on the forest floor and significantly increased the standing biomass of A. stricta, S. curtissii, Andropogonspp., all other grasses and all forbs. Recurrent fire also prevented the development of a vigorous midstory, that impedes understory growth and poses a serious fire hazard to the stand. Overstory trees were largely unaffected by burning. Historical light grazing on the site produced no measurable effects on the plant community. Findings suggest that the biennial burning interval results in declines of I. glabra in the shrub layer and litter cover on the forest floor, leading to the largest increases in understory plant species richness and diversity and the biomass productivity of grasses and forbs. Although flatwoods plant communities evolved in environments characterized by growing-season fires of variable frequency, long-term application of dormant season fire is also recommended as a useful option for sustaining resource values in this and similar longleaf pine wiregrass ecosystems.