Can gullies preserve complex forest structure in frequently burnt landscapes?
Structurally complex forest provides important habitat for a diverse array of vertebrate fauna. Frequent fire can simplify forest structure, though topographic mitigation of fire effects could potentially preserve structurally more complex habitat within certain topographic locations of fire prone landscapes. Our study assessed whether the effects of fire frequency on forest structure (tree hollows, log volume, vegetation complexity) varied with topographic position. The effect of wildfire severity and intensive logging were also examined. Frequent fire reduced vegetation cover on ridges, but not in gullies. The risk of collapse (i.e. presence of fire scars) increased for large trees on frequently burnt ridges, but remained suppressed in gullies. Crown fire reduced hollow presence in dead trees (i.e. snags), but increased hollow presence in trees with a healthy crown. The volume of extensively decomposed logs was three times greater in gullies than ridges, but was unaffected by fire frequency. Intensive logging reduced the number of hollow bearing trees and increased the volume of extensively decomposed logs, though future declines in log volume are predicted due to bottlenecks in log input. Our results suggest that gullies may play a critical role in preserving structurally complex stands within frequently burnt temperate eucalypt forests. Protecting gullies from land clearing and intensive logging is likely to be an important step in maintaining key habitat features and associated fauna in these landscapes.
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