Forest diversity and disturbance: changing influences and the future of Virginia's Forests
The Virginia landscape supports a remarkable diversity of forests, from maritime dunes, swamp forests, and pine savannas of the Atlantic coastal plain, to post-agricultural pine-hardwood forests of the piedmont, to mixed oak, mixed-mesophytic, northern hardwood, and high elevation conifer forests in Appalachian mountain provinces. Virginia’s forests also have been profoundly shaped by disturbance. Chestnut blight, hemlock woolly adelgid, emerald ash borer, and other pests have caused declines or functional extirpation of foundation species. Invasive plants like multiflora rose, Oriental bittersweet, and Japanese stiltgrass threaten both disturbed and intact forests. Oaks and other fire-dependent species have declined with prolonged fire suppression, encouraging compositional shifts to maple, beech, and other mesophytic species. Agriculture has left lasting impacts on soil and microsite variations, and atmospheric nitrogen deposition has led to soil acidification, nutrient loss, and diversity declines. And, future changes associated with climate warming are expected to influence species distributions and habitat quality, particularly for hemlock-northern hardwood and spruce-fir forests. These and other disturbances will continue to shape Virginia’s forests, influencing species interactions, successional trajectories, and susceptibility to invasive plants and secondary stressors, and initiating broader impacts on forest diversity, ecosystem processes, and habitat resources for associated species and neighboring ecosystems.