Following decades of fire exclusion, managers are increasingly implementing prescribed fire in southern Appalachian forests. To date, the use of prescribed fire in the region has often been focused on reducing hazardous fuel loads and has typically occurred in the dormant season. Understanding the effects of burning in different periods of plant growth may reveal how burn season influences patterns of vegetative succession. In this study, we compared the effects of prescribed burn treatments conducted in the dormant season (January-early April) vs. the early growing season (mid-late April) on changes in plant abundance by understory, midstory, and overstory forest strata. Plant groups were distinguished by growth habit, stem origin, functional characteristics, and species of management interest (red maple (Acer rubrum L.) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia L.)). Burn season had minimal effect on understory cover, density, richness, or diversity. In the midstory, early growing season burns were more effective in reducing shrub density than dormant season burns (− 1,585 ± 188 ha− 1 vs. − 813 ± 240 ha− 1 , respectively), with greater differences among smaller stems. Early growing season burns also reduced midstory red maple density to a greater degree than dormant season burns (− 356 ± 57 ha− 1 vs. − 219 ± 69 ha− 1 ), a response that was not observed among other mesophytic hardwood species. Burning slightly reduced canopy cover, but neither canopy cover nor overstory density response varied by burn season. Our results demonstrate that managers may find increased opportunities to promote forest restoration objectives in the southern Appalachians by extending the use of prescribed fire into the early growing season.
Vaughan, Matthew C.; Hagan, Donald L.; Bridges, William C.; Barrett, Kyle; Norman, Steve; Coates, T. Adam; Klein, Rob. 2022. Effects of burn season on fire-excluded plant communities in the southern Appalachian Mountains, USA. Forest Ecology and Management. 516: 120244-. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2022.120244.