Responses of soil carbon, nitrogen and cations to the frequency and seasonality of prescribed burning in a Cape Cod oak-pine forest

TitleResponses of soil carbon, nitrogen and cations to the frequency and seasonality of prescribed burning in a Cape Cod oak-pine forest
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsNeill, Christopher, Patterson William A., and Crary David W.
JournalForest Ecology and Management
Pagination234 - 243
Date Published10/2007
Keywordsfire frequency, fire season, pine barrens, sandplain, soil nutrients

Fire is an important component of the historic disturbance regime of oak and pine forests that occupy sandy soils of the coastal outwash plain of the northeastern US. Today prescribed fire is used for fuel reduction and for restoration and maintenance of habitat for rare plant and animal, animal species. We evaluated the effects of the frequency and seasonality of prescribed burning on the soils of a Cape Cod, Massachusetts’s coastal oak-pine forest. We compared soil bulk density, pH and acidity, total extractable cations and total soil carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) in unburned plots and in plots burned over a 12-year period, along a gradient of frequency (every 1-4 years), in either spring (March/April) or summer (July/August). Summer burning decreased soil organic horizon thickness more than spring burning, but only summer burning every 1-2 years reduced organic horizons compared with controls. Burning increased soil bulk density of the organic horizon only in the annual summer burns and did not affect bulk density of mineral soil. Burn frequency had no effect on pH in organic soil, but burning every year in summer increased pH of organic soil from 4.01 to 4.95 and of mineral soil from 4.20 to 4.79. Burning had no significant effect on organic or mineral soil percent C, percent N, C:N, soil exchangeable Ca(2+), Mg(2+), K(+) or total soil C or N. Overall effects of burning on soil chemistry were minor. Our results suggest that annual summer burns may be required to reduce soil organic matter thickness to produce conditions that would regularly allow seed germination for oak and for grassland species that are conservation targets. Managers may have to look to other measures, such as combinations of fire with mechanical treatments (e.g., soil scarification) to further promote grasses and forbs in forests where establishment of these plants is a high priority.