Active restoration enhances recovery of a Hawaiian mesic forest after fire.
Identifying management actions required to maintain desired ecological conditions in response to high intensity disturbance events remains a critical question, especially as disturbance regimes and species composition shift due to human activities and climate change. Feedbacks between novel fire disturbance and invasive species on islands, in particular, have resulted in the degradation and conversion of native ecosystems into more alien-species-dominated communities. Further, monitoring and evaluation of management responses to these events remains sparse. We draw on 14 years of monitoring to assess the effects of fire and management response (weed removal and experimentally controlled outplanting of native plants), on the structure, composition and diversity of a native, mesic tropical forest in Hawai'i. Natural regeneration of the native, disturbance-adapted tree, Acacia koa was rapid and abundant and formed the dominant canopy component after 14 years. However, naturally recruited native small trees and understory plants all declined in abundance over the course of the study. In contrast, nonnative, invasive species were highly successful at establishing at the site and currently dominate the understory. Outplanted native species (Acacia koa, Dodonea viscosa, and Alyxia stellata) had relatively high survival and significantly increased native species abundance and richness at the site. We conclude that despite high natural recruitment of a native overstory tree (Acacia koa), restoration management intervention enhanced the native component of post-fire vegetation. However, continued intervention will likely be required over the long-term to facilitate the recovery of vegetation to the pre-fire, native-dominant conditions. As high intensity disturbances increase across island ecosystems, understanding and monitoring the successional trajectory of both nonnative and native forest species can improve the efficiency of management response and allow managers to adapt to changes in conditions as well as prioritize actions across larger disturbance events.