Afforestation causes changes in post-fire regeneration in native shrubland communities of northwestern Patagonia, Argentina.
Question: What are the effects of fire in native shrubland communities and in pine plantations established in these shrublands? Location: Northern Patagonia, Argentina. Methods: We surveyed four sites in Chall-Huaco valley, located in northwest Patagonia. Each site was a vegetation mosaic composed of an unburned Pinus ponderosa plantation, a plantation burned in 1996, and an unburned matorral and a matorral burned by the same fire. We recorded the cover of all vascular plant species. We also analysed species richness, total cover, proportion of exotic species, abundance of woody species and herb species, cover of exotic species, abundance of woody and herb species and differences in composition of species. For both shrubs and tree species we recorded the main strategy of regeneration (by resprouting or by seed). Results: We found that fire had different effects on native matorral and pine plantations. Five years after fire, plantations came to be dominated by herbs and exotic species, showing differences in floristic composition. In contrast, matorral communities remained very similar to unburned matorral in terms of species richness, proportion of woody species, and herb species and proportion of exotics. Also, pine plantations were primarily colonized by seedlings, while matorrals were primarily colonized by resprouting. Conclusions: Matorrals are highly fire resilient communities, and the practice of establishing plantations on matorrals produces a strong reduction in the capacity of matorral to return to its original state. The elimination of shrubs owing to the effect of plantations can hinder regeneration of native ecosystems. Burned plantations may slowly develop into ecosystems similar to the native ones, or they may produce a new ecosystem dominated by exotic herbs. This study shows that plantations of exotic conifers affect native vegetation even after they have been removed, as in this case by fire.