Forest-floor treatments in Arizona ponderosa pine restoration ecosystems: no short-term effects on plant communities.
Leaf litter accumulation during fire exclusion and increases in tree density in postsettlement southwestern Pinus ponderosa forests may limit the establishment of understorey vegetation. We performed an experiment in P. ponderosa forests of northern Arizona to ascertain plant community responses to forest-floor scarification and Oi removal on thirty-six 100-m2 plots overlaid on an existing ecological restoration experiment that involved tree thinning and controlled burning. Contrasting with findings from many other forest types, forest-floor treatments had no effect on community diversity or composition during the 2-year experiment. Sørensen similarities were as high as 97% between posttreatment years within treatments; and successional vectors also provided little indication that treatments may appreciably affect longer-term successional trajectories. Lack of response to these fairly drastic treatments is surprising given these forests' exceptionally heavy Oi horizons and large proportions of conifer litter. Apparently shading, belowground competition for water or nutrients, or other tree-associated factors more strongly limit understorey communities than does leaf litter. Based on sparse A-horizon seed banks averaging <300 seeds.m-2 and limited aboveground vegetation, we hypothesize that seed shortages, particularly for native perennials, also partly precluded a treatment response. Because extensive unvegetated areas at these restoration sites may be colonized by exotics, conservative management strategies could include testing the seeding or outplanting of desirable native species as an option for filling unoccupied microsites. Reporting of "no treatment effect" experiments such as this one is important to avoid biasing meta-analyses, as is future research to clarify combinations of factors limiting understorey communities. Increased understanding of these limiting factors may lead to identification of other treatments that promote recovery of native species during ecological restoration in this region.