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Stand-replacing wildfires increase nitrification for decades in southwestern ponderosa pine forests


Stand-replacing wildfires are a novel disturbance within ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests of the southwestern United States, and they can convert forests to grasslands or shrublands for decades. While most research shows that soil inorganic N pools and fluxes return to pre-fire levels within a few years, we wondered if vegetation conversion (ponderosa pine to bunchgrass) following stand-replacing fires might be accompanied by a long-term shift in N cycling processes. Using a 34-year stand-replacing wildfire chronosequence with paired, adjacent unburned patches, we examined the long-term dynamics of net and gross nitrogen (N) transformations. We hypothesized that N availability in burned patches would become more similar to those in unburned patches over time after fire as these areas become re-vegetated. Burned patches had higher net and gross nitrification rates than unburned patches (P < 0.01 for both), and nitrification accounted for a greater proportion of N mineralization in burned patches for both net (P < 0.01) and gross (P < 0.04) N transformation measurements. However, trends with time-after-fire were not observed for any other variables. Our findings contrast with previous work, which suggested that high nitrification rates are a short-term response to disturbance. Furthermore, high nitrification rates at our site were not simply correlated with the presence of herbaceous vegetation. Instead, we suggest that stand-replacing wildfire triggers a shift in N cycling that is maintained for at least three decades by various factors, including a shift from a woody to an herbaceous ecosystem and the presence of fire-deposited charcoal.

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