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Can Nitrogen Fertilization Aid Restoration of Mature Tree Productivity in Degraded Dryland Riverine Ecosystems?

Andersen, D. C., E. C. Adair, S. M. Nelson and D. Binkley. 2014. Restoration Ecology


Restoration of riparian forest productivity lost as a consequence of flow regulation is a common management goal in dryland riverine ecosystems. In the northern hemisphere, dryland river floodplain trees often include one or another species of Populus, which are fast-growing, nutrient-demanding trees. Because the trees are phreatophytic in drylands, and have water needs met in whole or in part by a shallow water table, their productivity may be limited by nitrogen (N) availability, which commonly limits primary productivity in mesic environments. We added 20 g N m-2 in a 2-m radius around the base of mature Populus fremontii along each of a regulated and free-flowing river in semiarid northwest Colorado, USA (total n = 42) in order to test whether growth is constrained by low soil N. Twelve years after fertilization, we collected increment cores from these and matched unfertilized trees and compared radial growth ratios (growth in the 3-year post-fertilization period/growth in the 3-year pre-fertilization period) in paired t tests. We expected a higher mean ratio in the fertilized trees. No effect from fertilization was detected, nor was a trend evident on either river. An alternative test using analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) produced a similar result. Our results underscore the need for additional assessment of which and to what extent factors other than water control dryland riverine productivity. Positive confirmation of adequate soil nutrients at these and other dryland riparian sites would bolster the argument that flow management is necessary and sufficient to maximize productivity and enhance resilience in affected desert riverine forests.

Key Words

cold desert Colorado environmental constraints floodplain Fremont cottonwood growth nutrient Populus tree rings