Stem exclusion and mortality in unmanaged subalpine forests of the Swiss Alps

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Understanding the causes and consequences of spatiotemporal structural development in forest ecosystems is an important goal of basic and applied ecological research. Most existing knowledge about the sequence and timing of distinct structural stages following stand origin in unmanaged (not actively managed in >50 years) forests has been derived from forests in North America, which are characterized by particular topographic, climatic, biotic and other environmental factors. Thus, the effects on structural development remain poorly understood for many other forest systems, such as the dense, unmanaged, subalpine Norway spruce forests of the Swiss Alps. Over the past century, land abandonment and reductions in active forest management have led to a substantial increase in the density of these forests types. Consequently, many stands are entering the stem exclusion stage and are currently characterized by associated self-thinning mortality. However, the environmental influences on the rate of this structural development as well as this structural stage itself have not yet been examined. We studied stem exclusion processes based on forest inventory data (National Swiss Forest Inventory; NFI) over three survey periods (1983-1985, 1993-1995 and 2004-2006) using repeated measures statistics. To complement these analyses, we also collected and analysed 3,700 increment cores from 20 field plots within dense subalpine Norway spruce forests dispersed across the Swiss Alps. Over the past decades, basal area (BA) has generally increased, particularly on N-facing and steeper slopes, and within 300 m of potential treeline. The number of dead trees was higher on N-facing compared with S-facing slopes, but the BA of dead wood was higher on S-facing slopes. Tree ring analysis confirmed important differences in growth patterns between N- and S-facing slopes and verified the results of the NFI analysis. This study provides a detailed example of how environmental heterogeneity and management history can influence the spatiotemporal structural development of forest ecosystems. © 2012 Springer-Verlag.

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European Journal of Forest Research

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competition, Dendroecology, forest development, National Forest Inventory (NFI), Norway spruce, self-thinning