Fuel and vegetation changes in southwestern, unburned portions of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, USA, 2003-2019

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Northeast Forestry University

Overstory basal area, ericaceous shrub cover (Kalmia latifolia L. and Rhododendron maximum L.), and fuels (i.e., woody fuel loads and depths and O Horizon thickness) were assessed within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, USA, in 2003 - 2004. Due to recent wildfire activity within the southern Appalachian Mountain region (including Great Smoky Mountains National Park), the potential spread and expansion of ericaceous shrubs, and the impacts of the hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae Annand) on eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis (L.) Carriere), these same ecosystem components were again assessed in 2019. Elevation and moisture regime (xeric, intermediate, and mesic) were included in this assessment as potential influential factors. An evaluation of repeated measurements from 40 plots suggested that O Horizon thickness did not change significantly over the 16-year period, but increased as elevation increased, and moisture regime (xeric O Horizon thickness > mesic O Horizon thickness) was a significant, related factor. The sum of 1-, 10-, and 100-h fuel loads (fuels less < 7.6 cm diameter) increased, whereas woody fuel depth decreased over the 16-year period. No significant changes in 1000-h fuel loads (> 7.6 cm diameter), total woody fuel loads, ericaceous shrub cover, total basal area, or live T. canadensis basal area were observed. Live T. canadensis basal area decreased with increasing elevation. Dead, standing T. canadensis basal area increased from 2003-2019, and that increase was most pronounced as elevation increased on xeric and intermediate sites. Overall, we found that: 1. hypothesized increases in total woody fuel loads and ericaceous shrub cover were not present; and 2. elevation and moisture regime were most related to observed changes in vegetation and fuel condition.

Eastern hemlock, Hemlock woolly adelgid, Mountain laurel, Rhododendron