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Deborah A. McGrath, Jonathan P. Evans, C. Ken Smith, David G. Haskell, Neil W. Pelkey, Robert R. Gottfried, Charles D. Brockett, Matthew D. Lane, and E. Douglass Williams

Abstract

Over the past two decades, forests in the southeastern United States have undergone dramatic changes as the result of urban sprawl and conversion to intensively managed pine plantations. The Cumberland Plateau, an important ecoregion in the southeastern United States, contains some of the largest remaining tracts of privately owned, native hardwood forest in North America. These ecologically important forests have been undergoing increasingly rapid rates of hardwood-to-pine conversion, much of which has gone undetected by large-scale statewide inventories. Forest conversion in Tennessee's southern Cumberland Plateau provides a case study highlighting the need for interdisciplinary and spatially explicit assessments of the impact and drivers of land-use change at smaller scales. Aerial and satellite imagery were used to create computer-generated maps of land use and forest cover for a 243 000 ha study area within a seven-county region of the southern Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee to track and document patterns of forest change and conversion between 1981 and 2000. The ecological impact of forest harvesting and hardwood-to-pine conversion was evaluated by (i) monitoring aquatic macroinvertebrate diversity, (ii) tracking breeding-bird populations, and (iii) comparing calcium (Ca) stores and cycling in a chronosequence of hardwood to first- and second-rotation loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) plantations. It was found that 14% of native forest cover had been lost since 1981, 74% of which resulted from hardwood-to-pine conversion. It was also found that the rate of conversion to pine doubled from 1997 to 2000. Water quality in streams, as measured by the abundance of critical macroinvertebrates, was significantly lower in recently logged sites than in undisturbed native forest. Surveys of breeding-bird populations showed that pine plantations of several age classes had lower species richness and evenness than did native oak–hickory forests. Despite similar soil concentrations of Ca in native hardwood, mature first-rotation, and early second-rotation pine, changes were found in aboveground Ca storage that suggest substantial system Ca losses that may limit productivity of second-rotation pine or regrowth of oak–hickory forest. As part of the ongoing research on the socioeconomic drivers of land-use change on the Cumberland Plateau, it was found that Tennessee's major forest conservation incentive program only delays forest conversion for a few years while subsidizing landowners who would not have converted their land in the absence of the program. These results demonstrate the need for more detailed and multidisciplinary research conducted at smaller scales so as to enhance the understanding of the impact and drivers of land-use change at larger scales.

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