• Fire Frequency, Nutrient Concentrations and Distributions, and δ13C of Soil Organic Matter and Plants in Southeastern Arizona Grassland

      Biggs, Thomas; Quade, Jay; Webb, Robert H.; Bull, William B.; Hendricks, David M.; Long, Austin; Biggs, Thomas (The University of Arizona., 1997)
      Over the past century, woody plants and shrubs have increased in abundance at the expense of grasslands in many semiarid regions. The availability and concentrations of nutrients influence the relative success of plants, but the effects of fire frequency on soil nutrients is unknown for semiarid grasslands. On the gunnery ranges of Fort Huachuca in southeastern Arizona, study sites were established to examine the effects of fire frequency on soil biogeochemistry, plant biochemistry, and δ¹³C values in soil organic matter (SOM). The sites were on homogeneous granitic alluvium where wildfire frequency history is known from 1973 to present and no cattle grazing has occurred in recent decades. Subplots represent fire frequencies of no burns, 3 fires per decade, and 5 fires per decade. The "no burn" plot has abundant C₃ Prosopis veleruina (mesquite) trees, whereas the burned plots are open C₄-dominated grasslands with scattered mesquite trees. Prosopis trees have altered SOM pools by the concentration of plant nutrients and the addition of isotopically light shrub litter. Frequent fires have altered the basic geochemistry and nutrient availabilities of the soil, and the changes appear to be significant enough to affect plant growth. Soil pH increases with burning frequency, and TOC, total nitrogen, and plant -available phosphorus show significant increases on the infrequently burned plot. Burning is advantageous for preservation or restoration of grasslands, as total living grass biomass is greater on the two burned plots. Root biomass is significantly lower on the "frequently burned" plot. Concentrations of the key nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus are reduced in plants on the burned sites compared to plants on the unburned site. Fires help re-distribute nutrients but evidence of nutrient concentrations and δ¹³C values are retained in SOM for many decades. Estimates of bulk carbon turnover rates range from 112 to 504 years. Evidence for modern C₃ shrub expansion is found in the shift of SOM δ¹³C values from values characteristic of C₄ grasses to C₃ shrubs in surface soil layers. δ¹³C(SOM) values indicate that the Holocene and Late Pleistocene were dominated by C₄ grasslands, and the pre-Late Pleistocene vegetation was a C₄-grass savanna with abundant C₃ plants.