Succession may maintain high leaf area: Sapwood ratios and productivity in old subalpine forests

Ragan M. Callaway, Anna Sala, Robert E. Keane

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Old forests are generally believed to exhibit low net primary productivity (NPP) and therefore to be insignificant carbon sinks. This relationship between age and NPP is based, in part, on the hypothesis that the biomass of respiratory tissues such as sapwood increases with age to a point where all photosynthate is required just to maintain existing tissue. However, this theoretical connection between respiration:assimilation ratios and forest productivity is based on age-dependent trends in the sapwood:leaf ratios of individual trees and even-aged stands; it does not take into account such processes in natural forests as disproportional increases in shade-tolerant species over time and multiple-age cohorts. Ignoring succession and structural complexity may lead to large underestimates of the productivity of old forests and inaccurate estimates of the ages at which forest productivity declines. To address this problem, we compared biomass allocation and productivity between whitebark pine, a shade-intolerant, early-successional tree species, and subalpine fir, a shade-tolerant, late-successional species, by harvesting 14 whitebark pines and nine subalpine firs that varied widely in dbh and calculating regression models for dbh vs annual productivity and biomass allocation to leaves, sapwood, and heartwood. Late-successional subalpine fir allocated almost twice as much biomass to leaves as early-successional whitebark pine. Subalpine firs also had a much lower allocation to sapwood and higher growth rates across all tree sizes. We then modeled biomass allocation and productivity for 12 natural stands in western Montana that were dominated by subalpine fir and whitebark pine varying in age from 67 to 458 years by applying the regressions to all trees in each stand. Whole-stand sapwood:leaf ratios and stand productivity increased asymptotically with age. Sapwood:leaf ratios and productivity of whitebark pine in these stands increased for approximately 200-300 years and then decreased slowly over the next 200 years. In contrast, sapwood:leaf ratios of all sizes of subalpine fir were lower than those of pine and productivity was higher. As stands shifted in dominance from pine to fir with age, subalpine fir appeared to maintain gradually increasing rates of whole-forest productivity until stands were approximately 400 years old. These results suggest that forests such as these may continue to sequester carbon for centuries. If shade-tolerant species that predominate late in succession maintain high assimilation-to-respiration ratios in other forests, we may be underestimating production in old forests, and current models may underestimate the importance of mature forests as carbon sinks for atmospheric CO2 in the global carbon cycle.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)254-268
Number of pages15
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2000


  • Allometry
  • Biomass allocation
  • Carbon cycle
  • Climate change
  • Forest productivity
  • Growth efficiency
  • Leaf area
  • Productivity
  • Sapwood
  • Succession


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