Soil and plant response to slash pile burning in a ponderosa pine forest
Slash pile burning is the most common method of forest residue disposal following ponderosa pine restoration harvests, which are intended to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire and restore the historical structure and function of forests in western Montana. The impact of high-intensity, long-duration fire (pile burning) on soil processes and plant community dynamics is not well understood. The objectives of this study were: (1) to characterize the influence of slash pile burning on soil nutrient availability, soil microbial activity, and arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) infection; (2) to compare seeding and soil amendment effects on burn scars. In May 2006, slash piles were burned in a ponderosa pine stand near Florence, Montana and 45 scars were sampled. Soil samples were collected from three locations in each slash pile to a depth of 10 cm and characterized for available soil NH 4 + -N, NO 3 - -N, potentially mineralizable nitrogen (PMN), and total C and N, water-soluble PO 4 ³- -P, microbial biomass, and mycorrhizal inoculum potential (MIP). In the burned center, soil NH 4 + -N was greatest one month post-burn and remained elevated one year later. There was no observable increase in NO 3 - -N until one year post-burn. Soluble PO 4 ³- -P was not impacted by burning. Microbial biomass was reduced by burning and did not recover one year later. Pile burning greatly reduced MIP. In October 2006, fire scars were either seeded with native graminoids or left non-seeded, divided into subplots, and assigned to one of five treatments: control, addition of local organic matter, scarification, scarification and organic matter addition, or scarification and commercial compost addition. Soils were monitored for the previously measured soil parameters and resin-sorbed inorganic N. Scarification with organic matter amendment and scarification with compost amendment both ameliorated soil properties. Seeding most effectively increased plant cover and suppressed non-native invasive species, while scarification or scarification with organic matter amendment further improved early plant establishment. Collectively, these data help characterize the impacts of slash pile burning as a management technique in ponderosa pine forests and illustrate potential treatments for restoring burn pile scars.