Forest composition, fuel loading, and soil chemistry resulting from 50 years of forest management and natural disturbance in two southeastern Coastal Plain watersheds, USA
Globally, prescribed fire, harvesting, and understory mastication, alone and in combination, are common forest management practices. Timber commodities, wildlife habitat, wildfire fuel reduction, soil conservation, and water quality are frequently targeted and assessed as these practices are utilized. In the 1960s, a study of paired, first-order watersheds was established in coastal South Carolina, USA, to evaluate the long-term impacts of forest management (i.e. prescribed fire, thinning, mastication of understory vegetation) on water quantity and quality. Following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, this included salvage logging on one watershed, but not the other. In 2015, these watersheds were comprehensively evaluated to determine differences in forest species composition, fuels, and soil chemistry. Softwood basal area was greater in the managed watershed than in the unmanaged watershed and hardwood basal area was greater in the unmanaged watershed than in the managed watershed. Total fuel mass did not differ between the two watersheds, but 1-hr and 1000-hr rotten fuel mass were greater on the unmanaged watershed. Ten-hr fuel mass was greater on the managed watershed. Calcium, nitrogen, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and pH differed between the litter (Oi horizon) and duff (Oe + Oa horizons) of both watersheds, but carbon only differed in the duff. Mineral soil (Ultisols, 0–10 and 10–20 cm depths) calcium and phosphorus differed between the watersheds, but pH and the other chemicals did not. Collectively, these results indicated that: (1) forest management and natural disturbance on these watersheds altered long-term forest structure; (2) different species compositions and the inclusion or exclusion of salvage logging after Hurricane Hugo produced different fuel compositions that may potentially impact potential wildfire hazard and fire behavior; (3) organisms as a primary soil-forming factor were impacted by long-term management, therefore, some soil chemical properties were affected. Collectively, these analyses highlighted the broad, long-term impacts to ecosystem properties and processes that might directly and indirectly result from active forest management and natural disturbance and the scale of site-specific assessment that might be considered when landowner objectives are targeted in forest management plans and practices.