The effects of thinning and burning on understory vegetation in North America: A meta-analysis

Joshua Willms, Anne Bartuszevige, Dylan W. Schwilk, Patricia L. Kennedy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


Management in fire-prone ecosystems relies widely upon application of prescribed fire and/or fire-surrogate (e.g., forest thinning) treatments to maintain biodiversity and ecosystem function. The literature suggests fire and mechanical treatments proved more variable in their effects on understory vegetation as compared to their effects on stand structure. The growing body of work comparing fire and thinning effects on understory vegetation offers an opportunity to increase the generality of conclusions through meta-analysis. We conducted a meta-analysis to determine if there were consistent responses of understory vegetation to these treatments in North American forests that historically experienced frequent surface fire regimes (<20 years fire return interval, FRI). Means and standard errors were extracted from 32 papers containing data on the response of four understory functional groups (herbaceous, shrub, non-native, and total) to thinning and burning treatments to calculate effect sizes. Lack of replication and inconsistent reporting of results hindered our ability to include many studies in this analysis. For each response variable (species richness and percent cover), we compared three treatment pairs: burn vs control, thin vs control and thin vs burn. We calculated standardized mean differences (Hedges’ g) for each pair and tested if this differed from zero using a random effects model fit with restricted maximum likelihood to account for variation by site. The most consistent effect of the treatments was the increase in non-native species following mechanical thinning and reduction in shrub cover following a burn. These differences suggest the two treatments may not be surrogates in the short-term (less than 5 years). Increase of non-native species due to disturbance is well established but it is not clear if burning and thinning consistently have differential impacts. Response of non-native plants to disturbance is likely a complex function of a variety of site and landscape factors that cannot be evaluated by the current literature. We conclude that prescribed fire and thinning treatments can be used successfully to restore understory species richness and cover, but they can create different conditions and these potentially different outcomes need to be considered in the planning of a fuels reduction treatment. We discuss management options to reduce negative effects of the treatments and we suggest managers use current decision-making frameworks prior to designing an intervention.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)184-194
Number of pages11
JournalForest Ecology and Management
StatePublished - May 15 2017


  • Burning
  • Disturbance
  • Fire surrogates
  • Forest understory
  • Fuels reduction
  • Meta-analysis
  • Non-native understory vegetation
  • Thinning


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