Legacy effects of afforestation on prairie plant and seed bank communities in a northern Canadian prairie.
Afforestation resulting from fire suppression, modified grazing, plantation establishment and climate change poses a threat to northern prairie ecosystems. Trees alter the composition and function of plant and soil fauna communities and can compromise the restoration of afforested prairies. To evaluate the hypothesis that legacies of afforestation persist in restored prairie communities and decrease the potential for restoration, we examined the composition, structure, and diversity of plant and seed bank communities along a 20 year chronosequence of plantation tree removal from a northern fescue prairie in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, Canada. Tree removal increased the abundance of weedy species in the plant and seed bank communities of restored prairies and plant diversity peaked and declined over the 20 year period of passive restoration. As a result, time since tree removal and the encroachment of invasive species were key in explaining the composition of restored prairie communities. Low correlation between the species composition of plant and seed bank communities, including the complete absence of Festuca hallii in restored treatments, demonstrated that legacies of afforestation compromised the potential of seed banks to facilitate prairie restoration. We conclude that tree removal alone is insufficient for the restoration of northern fescue prairies and that, in the absence of active management, the persistence of low-diversity plant and seed bank communities constitutes an important legacy of afforestation and an important barrier to future restoration.