Restoring grassland savannas from degraded pinyon-juniper woodlands: effects of mechanical overstory reduction and slash treatment alternatives
Although the distribution and structure of pinyon-juniper woodlands in the Southwestern United States are thought to be the result of historic fluctuations in regional climatic conditions, more recent increases in the areal extent, tree density, soil erosion rates, and loss of understory plant diversity are attributed to heavy grazing by domestic livestock and interruption of the natural fire regime. Prior to 1850, many areas currently occupied by high-density pinyon-juniper woodlands, with their degraded soils and depauperate understories, were very likely savannas dominated by native grasses and forbs and containing sparse tree cover scattered across the landscape. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of mechanical overstory reduction and three slash treatment alternatives (removal, clustering, and scattering) followed by prescribed fire as techniques for restoring grassland savannas from degraded woodlands. Plant cover, diversity, biomass and nutrient status, litter cover, and soil chemistry and erosion rates were measured prior to and for two years following experimental treatment in a degraded pinyon-juniper woodland in Central New Mexico. Treatment resulted in a significant increase in the cover of native grasses and, to a lesser degree, forbs and shrubs. Plant species richness and diversity increased most on sites where slash was either completely removed or scattered to serve as a mulch. Although no changes in soil chemistry or plant nutrient status were observed, understory biomass increased over 200 percent for all harvest treatments and was significantly greater than controls. While treatment increased litter cover and decreased soil exposure, this improvement did not significantly affect soil loss rates. Even though all slash treatment alternatives increased the cover and biomass of native grasses, scattering slash across the site to serve as a mulch appears most beneficial to improving plant species diversity and conserving site resources.