Yellow pine regeneration as a function of fire severity and post-burn stand structure in the southern Appalachian Mountains
We used pre- and post-burn fire effects data from six prescribed burns to examine post-burn threshold effects of stand structure (understory density, overstory density, shrub cover, duff depth, and total fuel load) on the regeneration of yellow pine (Pinus subgenus Diploxylon) seedlings and cover of herbaceous vegetation in six prescribed-fire management units located within western Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) in east Tennessee, USA. We also evaluated the utility of the Keetch–Byram Drought Index (KBDI) as a predictor of post-burn stand and fuel conditions by comparing post-burn stand variables for different ranges of KBDI (23–78; more wet, and 328–368; more dry). We found that yellow pine seedlings were effectively absent in post-burn forests until overstory density was reduced over 40%, understory density was reduced over 80%, and post-burn shrub cover was 10% or less. We also observed that a reduction in total fuels of 60% and a post-burn duff layer depth of less than four cm were required for successful regeneration of yellow pine. Total herbaceous species cover exhibited near identical responses with increased cover following an 80% reduction in understory density and a post-burn duff depth of less than 4 cm. We observed strong positive relationships between high KBDI values and burn severity, changes in forest structure, reductions in fuels, and post-burn yellow pine reproduction. We observed continuous recruitment of yellow pine seedlings 5 years after fire in high KBDI burns while low KBDI burns showed little change in yellow pine density through time. An intense outbreak of the southern pine beetle (SPB; Dendroctonus frontalis) occurred within 2 years of our high KBDI burns and reduced shading resulting from overstory mortality likely enhanced the survival of yellow pine seedlings. The results of this study provide targets for the application of prescribed fire to restore yellow pine in the southern Appalachians. Continued research and monitoring will help determine how prescribed fire can best be applied in combination with other disturbance agents such as SPB to perpetuate yellow pine forests.