Frequent fire alters nitrogen transformations in ponderosa pine stands of the Inland Northwest

Thomas H. DeLuca, Anna Sala

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112 Scopus citations


Recurrent, low-severity fire in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)/interior Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca) forests is thought to have directly influenced nitrogen (N) cycling and availability. However, no studies to date have investigated the influence of natural fire intervals on soil processes in undisturbed forests, thereby limiting our ability to understand ecological processes and successional dynamics in this important ecosystem of the Rocky Mountain West. Here, we tested the standing hypothesis that recurrent fire in ponderosa pine/Douglas-fir forests of the Inland Northwest decreases total soil N, but increases N turnover and nutrient availability. We compared soils in stands unburned over the past 69-130 years vs. stands exposed to two or more fires over the last 130 years at seven distinct locations in two wilderness areas. Mineral soil samples were collected from each of the seven sites in June and July of 2003 and analyzed for pH, total C and N, potentially mineralizable N (PMN), and extractable NH4+, NO 3-, PO4-3, Ca+2, Mg +2, and K+. Nitrogen transformations were assessed at five sites by installing ionic resin capsules in the mineral soil in August of 2003 and by conducting laboratory assays of nitrification potential and net nitrification in aerobic incubations. Total N and PMN decreased in stands subjected to multiple fires. This loss of total N and labile N was not reflected in concentrations of extractable NH4+ and NO 3-. Rather, multiple fires caused an increase in NO 3- sorbed on ionic resins, nitrification potential, and net nitrification in spite of the burned stands not having been exposed to fire for at least 12-17 years. Charcoal collected from a recent fire site and added to unburned soils increased nitrification potential, suggesting that the decrease of charcoal in the absence of fire may play an important role in N transformations in firedependent ecosystems in the long term. Interestingly, we found no consistent effect of fire frequency on extractable P or alkaline metal concentrations. Our results corroborate the largely untested hypothesis that frequent fire in ponderosa pine forests increases inorganic N availability in the long term and emphasize the need to study natural, unmanaged sites in far greater detail.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2511-2522
Number of pages12
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2006


  • Charcoal
  • Douglas-fir
  • Fire frequency
  • Inland Northwest USA
  • Nitrification
  • Nitrogen mineralization
  • Pinus ponderosa
  • Ponderosa pine
  • Pseudotsuga menziesii
  • Wilderness


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