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Spatial and Temporal Variability of the Impacts of Pinyon and Juniper Reduction on Hydrologic and Erosion Processes Across Climatic Gradients in the Western US: A Regional Synthesis

Williams, C. Jason, Snyder, Keirith A., Pierson, Frederick B.
Water 2018 v.10 no.11
Juniperus, Pinus, atmospheric precipitation, basins, burning, climate change, cold season, drought, grasses, groundwater, insect infestations, land use, pinyon-juniper, plant available water, plateaus, risk, runoff, stream flow, temporal variation, topographic slope, trees, uncertainty, understory, watersheds, wildfires, woodlands, Southwestern United States
Pinyon (Pinus spp.) and juniper (Juniperus spp.) woodlands are an important vegetation type in the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and southwestern desert regions of the western US that is undergoing substantial changes associated with land management, altered disturbance regimes, and climate change. We synthesized literature on the ecohydrologic impacts of pinyon and juniper tree reductions across plot to watershed scales, short- and long-term periods, and regional climatic gradients. We found that the initial plot- to hillslope-scale ecohydrologic and erosion impacts of tree reduction on pinyon and juniper woodlands by fire, mechanical tree removal, or drought depend largely on: (1) the degree to which these perturbations alter vegetation and ground cover structure, (2) initial conditions, and (3) inherent site attributes. Fire commonly imparts an initial increased risk for hillslope runoff and erosion that degrades over time with vegetation and ground cover recovery whereas tree reductions by mechanical means pose fewer initial negative ecohydrologic impacts. Tree reduction by either approach can enhance understory vegetation and improve site-level ecohydrologic function over time, particularly on sites with an initially favorable cover of native herbaceous vegetation and a cool-season precipitation regime. Understory vegetation and ground cover enhancements appear to increase ecohydrologic resilience of some woodland communities to disturbances such as drought, fire, and insect infestations. In contrast, intensive land use, prolonged drought or repeated burning associated with invasions of fire-prone grasses can propagate long-term site degradation through persistent elevated runoff and erosion rates. Our synthesis suggests the annual precipitation requirement for increases in plot- to hillslope-scale soil water availability for herbaceous enhancement through tree removal likely ranges from 200–400 mm for sites in the Great Basin and northern Colorado Plateau (cool-season precipitation regimes), and, although suggested with great uncertainty, likely exceeds 400 mm for woodlands with rain-dominated precipitation regimes in the southwestern US. Overall, literature is inconclusive regarding tree reduction impacts on watershed-scale changes in groundwater and streamflow. To date, there is little evidence that drought-related changes to vegetation in pinyon and juniper woodlands substantially affect watershed-scale water availability and streamflow at the annual time scale. Our synthesis identifies key knowledge gaps to overcome in improving understanding of the ecohydrologic and erosion impacts of broadly occurring pinyon and juniper tree reductions in the western US.