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Decade-Long Plant Community Responses to Shrubland Fuel Hazard Reduction


Fuel hazard reduction treatments such as prescribed fire and mastication are widely used to reduce fuel hazard. These treatments help protect people from wildfire, yet may not be mutually beneficial for people and ecosystems in areas adapted to infrequent crown fire. Short-term studies indicate that some fuel hazard reduction treatments can be detrimental to biodiversity and ecosystem function, suggesting that land managers face an acute dilemma between protecting people or ecosystems. However, the long-term ecological trajectories and fuel hazard outcomes of fuel treatments are poorly understood. Using a 13-year replicated experimental study, we evaluated how shrub cover, non-native species abundance, native species diversity, and an obligate seeder responded to fuel treatments in California’s northern chaparral. The fuel hazard reduction treatments (fire and mastication) and their seasons of implementation (fall, winter, and spring) had unique influences on plant communities. Untreated controls had continuous shrub canopy with no understory throughout the study. Recovery of shrubs after mastication was slower than recovery after fire. Ten years after treatment, shrub cover in fire treatments and spring mastications produced 1% to 2% less cover than the control, whereas fall mastications produced 8l% less cover than the control. The number of non-native plants, including non-native annual grasses, was higher after mastication treatments compared to fire treatments after 10 years. Surprisingly, mastication treatments also increased cover of an uncommon native shrub that is an obligate seeder. The season of treatment also influenced these outcomes, but to a lesser extent than treatment type. Long-term shrub species composition did not follow the trends of short-term species composition of shrub recruitment. Based on these findings, we concluded that fuel hazard reduction treatments only reduce shrub cover for approximately 10 years, and can change plant community composition, suggesting that thorough consideration of the decision to use fuel hazard reduction treatments is warranted.

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