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Can tree species change fuel availability for prescribed fire?

Trees influence their surroundings in many ways. One potentially important way is how quickly their leaves break down, as leaf litter is an important carrier of prescribed fire. Thus, the effectiveness of prescribed fire may ultimately be determined by leaf litter decay rates.

Dry leaves and pine needles scattered on the forest floor.
Leaf litter decaying on the forest floor in Auburn, Alabama. USDA Forest Service photo by John Willis.

To examine the effect of tree species on forest litter availability, researchers followed leaf decay of seven important trees for a year: American beech, red maple, sugar maple, shagbark hickory, chestnut oak, black oak, and white oak.

Results indicate that leaf litter from certain non-oak species decays faster. Among the species examined, red maple and sugar maple leaves decayed the fastest, which means these species have the greatest potential to reduce leaf litter availability on the forest floor. Moreover, red maple and sugar maple are expected to expand throughout the central and eastern U.S.

The oak species examined in this study generally had a slower decay rate. Black oak and chestnut oak decayed more slowly than white oak, highlighting the importance of species-level variations even among oak species. The findings suggest that tree species has a profound influence on leaf litter availability, which could have major implications for future prescribed fire operations.

Principal Investigator
John Willis, Research Forester
4158 - Restoring and Managing Longleaf Pine Ecosystems
Mesophication of upland oak forests: Implications of species-specific differences in leaf litter decomposition rates and fuelbed composition
External Partners
Emily Babl-Plausche, Texas Tree Foundation
Heather Alexander, Auburn University
Courtney Siegert, Mississippi State University
Andrew Berry, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest