Fuel-reduction management alters plant composition, carbon and nitrogen pools, and soil thaw in Alaskan boreal forest
Increasing wildfire activity in Alaska’s boreal forests has led to greater fuel reduction management. Management has been implemented to reduce wildfire spread, but the ecological impacts of these practices are poorly known. We quantified the effects of handthinning and shearblading on above- and belowground stand characteristics, plant species composition, carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) pools, and soil thaw across 19 sites dominated by black spruce (Picea mariana) in interior Alaska treated 2–12 years prior to sampling. The density of deciduous tree seedlings was significantly higher in shearbladed areas compared to unmanaged forest (6.4 vs. 0.1 stems/m2), and unmanaged stands exhibited the highest mean density of conifer seedlings and layers (1.4 stems/m2). Understory plant community composition was most similar between unmanaged and thinned stands. Shearblading resulted in a near complete loss of aboveground tree biomass C pools while thinning approximately halved the C pool size (1.2 kg C/m2 compared to 3.1 kg C/m2 in unmanaged forest). Significantly smaller soil organic layer (SOL) C and N pools were observed in shearbladed stands (3.2 kg C/m2 and 116.8 g N/m2) relative to thinned (6.0 kg C/m2 and 192.2 g N/m2) and unmanaged (5.9 kg C/m2 and 178.7 g N/m2) stands. No difference in C and N pool sizes in the uppermost 10 cm
of mineral soil was observed among stand types. Total C stocks for measured pools was 2.6 kg C/m2 smaller in thinned stands and 5.8 kg C/m2 smaller in shearbladed stands when compared to unmanaged forest. Soil thaw depth averaged 13 cm deeper in thinned areas and 46 cm deeper in shearbladed areas relative to adjacent unmanaged stands, although variability was high across sites. Deeper soil thaw was linked to shallower SOL depth for unmanaged stands and both management types, however for any given SOL depth, thaw tended to be deeper in shearbladed areas compared to unmanaged forest. These findings indicate that fuel-reduction management alters plant community composition, C and N pools, and soil thaw depth, with consequences for ecosystem structure and function beyond those intended for fire management.