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A Meta-Analysis of the Fire-Oak Hypothesis: Does Prescribed Burning Promote Oak Reproduction in Eastern North America?

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Abstract:

The fire-oak hypothesis asserts that the current lack of fire is a reason behind the widespread oak (Quercus spp.) regeneration difficulties of eastern North America, and use of prescribed burning can help solve this problem. We performed a meta-analysis on the data from 32 prescribed fire studies conducted in mixed-oak forests to test whether they supported the latter assertion. Overall, the results suggested that prescribed fire can contribute to sustaining oak forests in some situations, and we identified several factors key to its successful use. Prescribed fire reduced midstory stem density, although this reduction was concentrated in the smaller-diameter stems. Prescribed fire preferentially selected for oak reproduction and against mesophytic hardwood reproduction, but this difference did not translate to an increase in the relative abundance of oak in the advance regeneration pool. Fire equalized the height growth rates of the two species groups. Establishment of new oak seedlings tended to be greater in burned areas than in unburned areas. Generally, prescribed burning provided the most benefit to oak reproduction when the fires occurred during the growing season and several years after a substantial reduction in overstory density. Single fires conducted in closed-canopy stands had little impact in the short term, but multiple burns eventually did benefit oaks in the long term, especially when followed by a canopy disturbance. Finally, we identify several future research needs from our review and synthesis of the fire-oak literature.

Keywords: Quercus spp; fire effects; hardwoods; prescribed fire; shelterwood

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5849/forsci.12-039

Publication date: June 16, 2013

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