Dispersed Variable-Retention Harvesting Mitigates N Losses on Harvested Sites in Conjunction With Changes in Soil Microbial Community Structure

Carolyn Churchland, Per Bengtson, Cindy E. Prescott, Sue J. Grayston

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As an alternative to clear-cutting, variable-retention harvesting is now standard forest management practice on the coast of British Columbia and in temperate forests globally, due to the benefits associated with maintaining mature forest species and forest structural diversity. Although there is some evidence that variable-retention harvesting, particularly single-tree (dispersed) retention will mitigate the impacts of clear-cutting on soil microbial communities and nutrient cycling, findings have been inconsistent. We examined microbial community structure (phospholipid-fatty acid), and nutrient availability (PRSTM probes) in a large (aggregated) retention patch and over three harvesting treatments: dispersed retention, clear-cut and clear-cut edge 2 years after harvest. Unlike previous studies, we did not observe elevated nitrate in the harvested areas, instead ammonium was elevated. Availability of N and other nutrients were surprisingly similar between the dispersed-retention treatment and the retention patch. The microbial community, however, was different in the clear-cut and dispersed-retention treatments, mostly due to significantly lower abundance of fungi combined with an increase in bacteria, specifically Gram-negative bacteria. This was accompanied by lower δ13CPDB value of the Gram-negative PLFA's in these treatments, suggesting the decline in mycorrhizal fungal abundance may have allowed the dominant Gram-negative bacteria to access more of the recently photosynthesized C. This shift in the microbial community composition in the dispersed-retention treatment did not appear to have a major impact on microbial functioning and nutrient availability, indicating that this harvesting practice is more effective at maintaining generic microbial functions/processes. However, as Mn levels were twice as high in the retention patch compared to the harvested treatments, indicating the other “narrow” processes (i.e., those performed by a small number of specialized microorganisms), such as lignin degradation, catalyzed by Mn peroxidase, which concomitantly removes Mn from solution, may be more sensitive to harvesting regimes. The effect of harvesting on such narrow nutrient cycling processes requires further investigation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number609216
JournalFrontiers in Forests and Global Change
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Jan 12

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Ecology
  • Forest Science


  • microbial community structure
  • Mn
  • nitrogen
  • PLFA
  • soil respiration
  • variable-retention harvesting


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