Influence of fire and harvest severity on understory plant communities.
In the managed portion of the boreal forest of eastern North America, logging has replaced fire as the most important disturbance agent. There, a large proportion of timber is harvested in forests susceptible of accumulating a thick Sphagnum layer that decreases forest productivity, a process called paludification. In such a context, understanding how disturbance type and severity of soil disturbances may affect post-disturbance microhabitat characteristics and understory community composition is critical for forest management. Different management techniques have been used such as careful logging and clearcutting, as well as winter and summer harvests, with various impacts on soils and forest regeneration. In the current study, we used 55 study sites representing a gradient of soil disturbance severity by harvesting (winter and summer) and fire (low and high severity) to compare their impacts on understory plant communities in the Clay Belt area of eastern Canada. At each site, understory community composition (vascular plants, bryophytes, and lichens) was assessed. We found a strong response of communities to overall severity as represented by disturbance type (careful logging, clearcutting, and fire), but little impact of fine scale disturbance severity (winter vs. summer, low vs. high severity disturbance) within each type of disturbance. Differences in community composition were reflected in the abundance of the various plant functional types, with invaders being more common in harvested sites, endurers being common in all disturbances except high severity fires, and avoiders being more common in older sites. Understory communities in harvested sites (<40 years old) were similar to communities typical of old sites originating from natural wildfire disturbances (75-100 years old low severity fires or 200 years old high severity fires) in terms of composition, but also Sphagnum spp. abundance. In order to maintain long-term forest productivity and manage forests in ways that more closely reproduce post-fire conditions, logging operations should aim at increasing soil disturbances, for example by using prescribed burns, in the Clay Belt area of eastern North America.