Prescribed fire is an active management tool used to address wildfire hazard and ecological concerns associated with fire exclusion and suppression over the past century. Despite widespread application in the United States, there is considerable inconsistency and lack of information regarding the extent to which specific outcomes are achieved and under what prescribed fire regimes, particularly in regard to ecological goals related to plant community structure. We quantify differences and patterns in plant functional group abundance, species richness and diversity, and other key forest components through time from a unique long-term (15-yr) experiment within the Malheur National Forest of Oregon. Treatments included five fire regimes: fall and spring 5-yr burning, fall and spring single burn, and no burning. Original burns were conducted in the fall of 1997 and spring of 1998, and plant data were collected every five years starting in 2002. Many perennial plant group responses were neutral, subtle, and ephemeral. Total cover increased marginally in response to the first burn, but this response disappeared within a decade. Three 5-yr reburns did not increase or decrease total plant cover, richness, or diversity. Some plant groups with fire resistant and resilient traits, such as annual forbs, exotic forbs, open bunchgrasses, and rhizomatous and resprouting perennials, showed some short-term positive responses to initial burning and 1–2 reburns, but not 3. The moderately more severe fall burns generally impacted plant responses more than spring burning, but many patterns were legacies from the original higher severity burns. Burn frequency was more important for less severe spring burning. Overall, we document that most native perennial plant functional groups were able to resist or recover from burning and reburning, but did not necessarily strongly respond. This may be due to the importance of other overriding forcing factors and ecosystem inertia not easily overcome by very low-severity prescribed burns. Results from our study are important for practitioners using prescribed fire to achieve biodiversity, conservation, and habitat goals that hinge on a vigorous native perennial plant response, as such outcomes are not certain even with frequent burn regimes.
Kerns, Becky K.; Day, Michelle A. 2018. Prescribed fire regimes subtly alter ponderosa pine forest plant community structure. Ecosphere. 9(12): e02529-. https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.2529.