Disturbance and management effects on forest soil organic carbon stocks in the Pacific Northwest

Ecol Appl. 2022 Apr 2;e2611. doi: 10.1002/eap.2611. Online ahead of print.


Carbon (C)-informed forest management requires understanding how disturbance and management influence soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks at scales relevant to landowners and forest policy and management professionals. The continued growth of data sets and publications allows powerful synthesis approaches to be applied to such questions at increasingly fine scales. Here, we report results from a synthesis that used meta-analysis of published studies and two large observational databases to quantify disturbance and management impacts on SOC stocks. We conducted this, the third in a series of ecoregional SOC assessments, for the Pacific Northwest, which comprises ~8% of the land area but ~12% of the U.S. forest sector C sink. At the ecoregional level, our analysis indicated that fundamental patterns of vegetation, climate, and topography are far more important controls on SOC stocks than land use history, disturbance, or management. However, the same patterns suggested that increased warming, drying, wildland fire, and forest regeneration failure pose significant risks to SOC stocks across the region. Detailed meta-analysis results indicated that wildfires diminished SOC stocks throughout the soil profile, while prescribed fire only influenced surface organic materials and harvesting had no significant overall impact on SOC. Independent observational data corroborated the negative influence of fire on SOC derived from meta-analysis, suggested that harvest impacts may vary subregionally with climate or vegetation, and revealed that forests with agricultural uses (e.g., grazing) or legacies (e.g., cultivation) had smaller SOC stocks. We also quantified effects of a range of common forest management practices having either positive (organic amendments, nitrogen [N]-fixing vegetation establishment, inorganic N fertilization) or no overall effects on SOC (other inorganic fertilizers, urea fertilization, competition suppression through herbicides). In order to maximize the management applications of our results, we qualified them with ratings of confidence based on degree of support across approaches. Last, similar to earlier published assessments from other ecoregions, we supplemented our quantitative synthesis results with a literature review to arrive at a concise set of tactics for adapting management operations to site-specific criteria.

Keywords: best management practices; carbon management; fire; fuel reduction; harvest; meta-analysis.