Structural characteristics and canopy dynamics of Tsuga canadensis in forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains, USA

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Tsuga canadensis (L.) Carr. forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains are currently facing imminent decline induced by a nonnative insect pest, the hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae Annand). To effectively manage these forest systems now and in the future, land managers need baseline data on forest structure and dynamics prior to large-scale Tsuga canadensis mortality. Most of our knowledge concerning the dynamics of Tsuga canadensis forests comes from more northern locations such as the Great Lakes region and New England and, therefore, may not pertain to the ecological systems found within the southern Appalachian Mountains. We examined the structure and canopy dynamics of four Tsuga canadensis forest stands within the Cataloochee watershed, in the far eastern part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). We characterized the environmental settings and vertical forest layers, as well as the diameter and age-structures of each Tsuga canadensis forest stand. These environmental and structural data showed that there were indeed differences between forest stands with and without successful Tsuga canadensis regeneration. The two forest stands exhibiting successful Tsuga canadensis regeneration were located above 1,000 m in elevation on well-drained, moderately steep slopes and had the greatest canopy openness. Structural data from these two forest stands indicated a history of more continuous Tsuga canadensis regeneration. We also constructed disturbance chronologies detailing the history of canopy response to disturbance events and related these to Tsuga canadensis regeneration within each forest stand. Student t-tests adjusted for unequal variances indicated significant differences in the number of release events per tree between forest stands with and without successful Tsuga canadensis regeneration. While forest stands with successful Tsuga canadensis regeneration were more frequently disturbed by minor to major canopy disturbances, events of moderate intensity were found to be most significant in terms of regeneration. These data will be of value to land managers maintaining stands of Tsuga canadensis where treatment for hemlock woolly adelgid infestation has been successful. In areas where treatment is impractical or unsuccessful, land managers will be able to use these data to restore Tsuga canadensis forests after the wave of hemlock woolly adelgid induced mortality has passed.

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