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Effects of variable-density thinning on non-native understory plants in coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest

September 24, 2021

Old-growth forests serve as critical habitat for many sensitive species, but management practices have diminished their prevalence, and former regions of old-growth are now dominated by second-growth stands lacking the structural heterogeneity, diversity, and species richness that these older forests possess. In western Washington state in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the Olympic Habitat Development Study was designed to address this issue and hasten the development of specific old-growth features in second-growth stands using variable-density thinning. One concern with such methods, however, is the potential to introduce non-native plants, which can have negative ecological and economic impacts. Here, we examine how variable-density thinning influences desirable forest characteristics, such as increased plant species diversity, versus the less desirable effects of non-native plant species introduction. We test two hypotheses regarding plant invasions. First, thinning would promote establishment of non-native, shade-intolerant species, but their abundance would gradually decline over time. Second, thinning disturbance and increased heterogeneity of canopy cover would initially promote understory richness of all species, although richness would decline over time with canopy closure and increased cover of shrubs and regenerating trees. We found that the number and cover of non-native species initially increased after thinning, peaking at 16 species present in variable-density thinned treatments in year three. By year 17, 11 species remained throughout the seven 6.5 ha treatment plots sampled, and cover was negligible. As predicted, species richness increased following thinning, however, native species richness remained elevated through year 17, contrary to our hypothesis. Furthermore, native species diversity also increased following thinning and remained higher in thinned treatments than controls through year 17. Our results show that variable-density thinning in temperate coniferous forests can enhance native, but not exotic, plant richness and diversity in the long term.