Mastication treatment effects on vegetation and fuels in piñon-juniper woodlands of central Colorado, USA.
Forest mastication treatments are increasingly utilized by land managers as a means of reducing tree cover for fire hazard mitigation and other habitat objectives in piñon-juniper (P-J) woodlands. Mastication converts trees into small pieces (e.g., wood chips), in the process creating canopy openings, redistributing fuel from the canopy to the surface, converting large diameter to small diameter fuels, and covering the ground with piles of woody debris. We measured vegetation and fuels at 192 sites in 24 pairs of 1-11-year-old mastication treatments and untreated adjacent controls in P-J woodlands of the Arkansas River valley, Colorado, and used paired t-tests, mixed-effects models, and gradient analysis (non-metric multidimensional scaling) to assess mastication effects. Treatments were associated with major, persistent ecological shifts relative to controls. Tree cover and canopy fuels were reduced in treatments; concomitantly, dead and down woody surface fuels, forb, and graminoid cover were elevated. Treatments exhibited much higher frequency, richness, and cover by a suite of non-native plant species including cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum). Non-native plant expansion appears linked to the disturbance associated with treatment activities, reductions in tree canopy, and alterations to ground cover, and effective mitigation of increases by these species may necessitate both pre- and post-treatment control measures. Shifts from native-dominated woodlands to open, weedy, herb- and shrub-dominated communities are likely to change patterns of abundance and habitat use by woodland- and forest-dependent wildlife. Decreased canopy fuels and increased herbaceous surface fuels including exotic annuals are expected to alter potential fire behavior. We encourage managers carrying out P-J mastication projects to explicitly address potential trade-offs between desired treatment outcomes and potentially unwelcome impacts, and how these might be mitigated. It may also be worth considering whether or not tree removal treatments will be warranted given anticipated climate change impacts to these woodlands.