Date of Award
Master of Science
Management and restoration of black oak dominated sand savannas often rely on historic vegetative descriptions (settler accounts, surveyor notes, aerial photographs). It is commonly assumed that fire alone maintains savanna structure and composition, however little information is known about the specific fire frequency needed to maintain these systems. The objective of this study was to quantify and correlate characteristics of stand structure with fire history of the Kankakee Sands savannas in northeastern Illinois. Fire history chronologies were determined through dendrochronological methods from 289 dated fire scars identified on 58 black oak (Quercus velutina) trees located throughout four wooded sites. Tree and woody structure was characterized in 30 circular plots (0.04 hectares) in three sites and 26 circular plots in one site that were placed at 25-meter intervals along randomly established permanent line transects in the summer of 2007. The structure analysis consisted of the development of tree age-size relationships among presently dominant and suppressed trees in relation to fire history. Variations in tree and woody structure were strongly related to fire dynamics among the four study sites. Specifically, components such as tree density (n = 114; r = 0.46; P < 0.0001), basal area (n = 114; r = 0.35; P < 0.0001), and total woody stem density (n = 114; r = 0.42; P < 0.0001) all increased as a function of fire-free interval. In addition, sites with shorter fire-free intervals were associated with a higher percentage of hollow tree boles (n = 104 r = -0.31 P < 0.0015) and visible fire scar wounds (n = 104 r = -0.43334 P < 0.0001). While the results of this study suggest fire had a significant role in structuring these four wooded sites, the data also indicated other historic disturbances coupled with individual site characteristics may be integral components in structuring these dynamic systems. For instance, fire-free intervals less than two years maintained conditions of openness, as was referenced to 1939 historic aerial photographs, but eliminated potential future canopy trees. Under these conditions, a dramatic shift in community structure toward prairie vegetation is likely, as no smaller trees were present to assume canopy dominance. Fire-free intervals greater than two years were associated with transition to closed canopy forests. Therefore, management considerations pertaining to fire with the addition of other historic disturbances, including grazing and or selective cutting, are proposed to balance historic canopy openness and promote regeneration of characteristic savanna species.
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