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Ecological Applications

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Afforestation, the conversion of non-forested lands to forest plantations, can sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide, but the rapid growth and harvesting of biomass may deplete nutrients and degrade soils if managed improperly. The goal of this study is to evaluate how afforestation affects mineral soil quality, including pH, sodium, exchangeable cations, organic carbon, and nitrogen, and to examine the magnitude of these changes regionally where afforestation rates are high. We also examine potential mechanisms to reduce the impacts of afforestation on soils and to maintain long-term productivity.

Across diverse plantation types (153 sites) to a depth of 30 cm of mineral soil, we observed significant decreases in nutrient cations (Ca, K, Mg), increases in sodium (Na), or both with afforestation. Across the data set, afforestation reduced soil concentrations of the macronutrient Ca by 29% on average (P < 0.05). Afforestation by Pinus alone decreased soil K by 23% (P < 0.05). Overall, plantations of all genera also led to a mean 71% increase of soil Na (P < 0.05). Mean pH decreased 0.3 units (P < 0.05) with afforestation.

Afforestation caused a 6.7% and 15% (P < 0.05) decrease in soil C and N content respectively, though the effect was driven principally by Pinus plantations (15% and 20% decrease, P < 0.05). Carbon to nitrogen ratios in soils under plantations were 5.7–11.6% higher (P < 0.05). In several regions with high rates of afforestation, cumulative losses of N, Ca, and Mg are likely in the range of tens of millions of metric tons. The decreases indicate that trees take up considerable amounts of nutrients from soils; harvesting this biomass repeatedly could impair long-term soil fertility and productivity in some locations. Based on this study and a review of other literature, we suggest that proper site preparation and sustainable harvest practices, such as avoiding the removal or burning of harvest residue, could minimize the impact of afforestation on soils. These sustainable practices would in turn slow soil compaction, erosion, and organic matter loss, maintaining soil fertility to the greatest extent possible.


This article was archived with permission from Ecological Society of America, all rights reserved. Document also available from Ecological Applications.