Prescribed fire and conifer removal promote positive understorey vegetation responses in oak woodlands.
Fire-prone woodlands and savannas world-wide face management challenges resulting from fire exclusion and subsequent encroachment of fire-sensitive trees. In the Pacific Northwest (USA), Quercus garryana oak woodlands and savannas are threatened by encroachment from the native conifer Pseudotsuga menziesii in the absence of fire. In the Bald Hills of Redwood National Park (California, USA), prescribed fire and conifer removal have been used to restore encroached woodlands. We examined the effects of encroachment and restoration on understorey vegetation, comparing four treatments: prescribed fire, prescribed fire and conifer removal, conifer removal, and encroached (control). Treatments including prescribed fire had the greatest native species richness. These two treatments also had the greatest non-native species richness, at both the site level and the treatment level. Woodlands treated with conifer removal and no prescribed fire were intermediate in species richness and diversity compared to burned treatments and encroached woodlands. Encroached woodlands had diminished richness and diversity compared to all restoration treatments. Non-metric multidimensional scaling (NMS) ordination demonstrated that conifer basal area, conifer litter and fine wood were associated with low species richness and diversity and that elevation and thatch were associated with higher species richness and diversity. Indicator species analysis identified that most native species and non-native species were associated with burned woodlands that were never encroached. Synthesis and applications. Our results suggest that both prescribed fire and conifer removal have benefits for understorey plant communities, increasing species richness, diversity and cover in oak woodlands and shifting understorey communities from forest-associated species to more woodland-associated species. Restoration of remnant Quercus garryana oak woodlands is complicated by the persistence and abundance of non-native herbaceous plants.