Ecosystem management can negatively affect the demography of plant communities through the introduction of novel disturbance regimes. Prescribed burning and timber harvesting are two common and widely applied management strategies across forest ecosystems. Despite this, little is known about the long-term effects that these interacting disturbances have on forest demography. This study examined the effect of timber harvesting and frequent prescribed burning on the mortality, growth and regeneration of trees in a temperate eucalypt forest of south-eastern Australia. The study took place at a long-term experimental site, where experimental coupes were subjected to a one-off selective harvesting treatment (harvested, not harvested), followed by regimes of experimental burning (no fire, ~4 year burn intervals or ~2 year burn intervals) over a 22 year period. Tree communities were surveyed at permanent monitoring sites prior to the application of experimental treatments (1985 – 1989), and resurveyed post treatment (2016) to assess mortality, growth rates and ingrowth of trees >10 cm diameter at breast height. Harvesting directly removed ~40% of trees and indirectly increased the mortality of retained trees through damage (e.g. crown and bole breakage) caused during the harvesting operation. The likelihood of harvesting damage was greater for small trees and increased with harvesting intensity (i.e. the amount of timber removed). Frequent burning increased the likelihood of tree mortality on harvested sites, with large, old trees being particularly vulnerable. Growth rate and ingrowth of trees was elevated at harvested sites, increasing almost linearly with harvesting intensity, which suggests that competitive release had occurred. Fire frequency had no effect on growth rates or ingrowth of trees. This study highlights that frequent prescribed burning and selective timber harvesting can have additive effects on the loss of large trees, reducing the availability of these keystone habitat structures in intensively managed forest ecosystems. Although the elevated rates of growth and ingrowth may hasten the replacement of lost large trees, recovery will require long time frames.
Available for download on Friday, July 29, 2022