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Soil Organic Carbon and Site Characteristics in Aspen and Evaluation of the Potential Effects of Conifer Encroachment on Soil Properties in Northern Utah

Woldeselassie, M. K.. 2009.


In the Intermountain West, aspen (Populus tremuloides) has declined mainly due to a combination of successional processes, fire suppression and long-term use of ungulates which has led to replacement by conifers, sagebrush or other shrub communities. Conifer encroachment is believed to cause critical changes in the ecosystem properties. In order to understand the impacts of conifer encroachment on soil properties such as soil organic carbon (SOC) storage, soil morphology, and soil chemical properties, and the implications of such changes, it is very important to assess the soil properties under the two vegetation types. The objectives of this study were to i) quantify SOC stocks and their variability in pure aspen forests; ii) evaluate the role of various biotic and abiotic site parameters as drivers of this SOC; iii) evaluate the effect of conifer encroachment on SOC storage, soil morphology, soil microclimate and soil chemical properties. The study was conducted in three catchments in Northern Utah in two phases: i) a transect study with 33 sampling points in a pure aspen community; ii) a paired plot study based on comparing six plots in to aspen and nearby conifer plots as representatives of end-member communities. Soils under aspen were mainly Mollisols, whereas the soils associated with conifers were classified as Alfisols, Inceptisols and Entisols. Even under pure aspen there was a significant SOC variability among sampling points and aspects, and SOC was negatively correlated with soil moisture index and average tree diameter and positively correlated with vegetation density. The paired plot comparison showed that SOC in the mineral soil (0-60 cm) was significantly higher under aspen, while O horizon thickness and C content was higher under conifers. The total SOC (O layer mineral soil) was not significantly different among the vegetation types, suggesting an upward redistribution of SOC in conifer soils. The soil moisture in summer was also higher under aspen compared to conifers. Other chemical properties were not affected by vegetation types. Our study indicates that i) no differences in SOC can be detected in surface soil horizons (<20 >cm); ii) SOC is highly variable and greatly influenced by soil moisture and forest characteristics; iii) conifer encroachment is likely to alter soil microclimatic and SOC amount and distribution.

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Utah State University