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Agricultural legacy, climate, and soil influence the restoration and carbon potential of woody regrowth in Australia

Dwyer, John M., Fensham, Rod J., Buckley, Yvonne M.
Ecological applications 2010 v.20 no.7 pp. 1838-1850
Acacia harpophylla, Bayesian theory, aboveground biomass, agricultural land, biomass production, carbon, carbon sequestration, climate, data analysis, ecosystems, edaphic factors, forests, long term effects, models, prioritization, rain, regrowth, soil, stand age, surveys, Australia
Opportunities for dual restoration and carbon benefits from naturally regenerating woody ecosystems in agricultural landscapes have been highlighted recently. The restoration capacity of woody ecosystems depends on the magnitude and duration of ecosystem modification, i.e., the “agricultural legacy.” However, this legacy may not influence carbon sequestration in the same way as restoration because carbon potential depends primarily on biomass accumulation, with little consideration of other attributes and functions of the ecosystem. Our present study simultaneously assesses the restoration and carbon potential of Acacia harpophylla regrowth, an extensive regrowth ecosystem in northeastern Australia. We used a landscape‐scale survey of A. harpophylla regrowth to test the following hypotheses: (1) management history, in combination with climatic and edaphic factors, has long‐term effects on stem densities, and (2) higher‐density stands have lower restoration and carbon potential, which is also influenced by climatic and edaphic factors. We focused on the restoration of forest structure, which was characterized using stem density, aboveground biomass, stem heights, and stem diameters. Data were analyzed using multilevel models within the hierarchical Bayesian model (HBM) framework. We found strong support for both hypotheses. Repeated attempts at clearing Brigalow (A. harpophylla ecosystem) regrowth increases stem densities, and these densities remain high over the long term, particularly in high‐rainfall areas and on gilgaied, high‐clay soils (hypothesis 1). In models testing hypothesis 2, interactions between stem density and stand age indicate that higher‐density stands have slower biomass accumulation and structural development in the long term. After accounting for stem density and stand age, annual rainfall had a positive effect on biomass accumulation and structural development. Other climate and soil variables were retained in the various models but had weaker effects. Spatial extrapolations of the HBMs indicated that the central and eastern parts of the study region are most suitable for biomass accumulation; however, these may not correspond to the areas that historically supported the highest biomass Brigalow forests. We conclude that carbon and restoration goals are largely congruent within areas of similar climate. At the regional scale, however, spatial prioritization of restoration and carbon projects may only be aligned where carbon benefits will be high.