Efficacy of Landscape Scale Oak Woodland and Savanna Restoration in the Ozark Highlands of Arkansas

The loss of historic ecosystem conditions has led forest managers to implement woodland and savanna ecosystem restoration on a landscape scale (≥10,000 ha) in the Ozark Plateau of Arkansas. Managers are attempting to restore and conserve these ecosystems through the reintroduction of disturbance, mainly short-rotation early-growing-season prescribed fire. Short-rotation early-growing season prescribed fire in the Ozarks typically occurs immediately before bud-break, through bud-break, and before leaf-out, and fire events occur on a three-to five-year interval. We examined short-rotation early-growing season prescribed fire as a restoration tool on vegetation characteristics. We collected vegetation measurements at 70 locations annually from 2011 to 2012 in and around the White Rock Ecosystem Restoration Area (WRERA), Ozark-St. Francis National Forest, Arkansas, and used generalized linear models to investigate the impact and efficacy of prescribed fire on vegetation structure. We found the number of large shrubs (>5 cm base diameter) decreased and small shrubs (<5 cm ground diameter) increased with prescribed fire severity. We found that horizontal understory cover from ground level to 1 m in height increased with time-since-prescribed-fire and woody ground cover decreased with the number of prescribed fire treatments. Using LANDFIRE datasets at the landscape scale, we found that since the initiation of a short-rotation early-growing season prescribed fire management regime, forest canopy cover has not reverted to levels characteristic of woodlands and savannas or reached restoration objectives over large areas. Without greater reductions in forest canopy cover and increases in forest-canopy cover heterogeneity, advanced regeneration will be limited in success, and woodland and savanna conditions will not return soon or to the extent desired.

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