Brown, M., C. D. Canham, L. Murphy, and T. M. Donovan. 2018. Timber harvest as the predominant disturbance regime in northeastern U.S. forests: effects of harvest intensification. Ecosphere 9:1-19. DOI:10.1002/ecs2.2062
Harvesting is the leading cause of adult tree mortality in forests of the northeastern United States. While current rates of timber harvest are generally sustainable, there is considerable pressure to increase the contribution of forest biomass to meet renewable energy goals. We estimated current harvest regimes for different forest types and regions across the U.S. states of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine using data from the U.S. Forest Inventory and Analysis Program. We implemented the harvest regimes in SORTIE-ND, an individual-based model of forest dynamics, and simulated the effects of current harvest regimes and five additional harvest scenarios that varied by harvest frequency and intensity over 150 yr. The best statistical model for the harvest regime described the annual probability of harvest as a function of forest type/region, total plot basal area, and distance to the nearest improved road.Forests were predicted to increase in adult above ground biomass in all harvest scenarios in all forest type and region combinations. The magnitude of the increase, however, varied dramatically—increasing from 3% to 120% above current landscape averages as harvest frequency and intensity decreased. The variation can be largely explained by the disproportionately high harvest rates estimated for Maine as compared with the rest of the region. Despite steady biomass accumulation across the landscape, stands that exhibited old-growth characteristics (defined as≥300 metric tons of biomass/hectare) were rare (8% or less of stands). Intensified harvest regimes had little effect on species composition due to widespread partial harvesting in all scenarios, resulting in dominance by late-successional species over time. Our analyses indicate that forest biomass can represent a sustainable, if small, component of renewable energy portfolios in the region, although there are tradeoffs between carbon sequestration in forest biomass and sustainable feedstock supply. Integrating harvest regimes into a disturbance theory framework is critical to understanding the dynamics of forested landscapes, especially given the predominance of logging as a disturbance agent and the increasing pressure to meet renewable energy needs.