This thesis includes two studies. The first study examined changes in soil characteristics as a result of prolonged conifer dominance in successional aspen-conifer forests. Changing disturbance patterns in aspen-conifer forests appear to be altering successional dynamics that favors conifer expansion in aspen forests. The primary objective of this paper was to identify how increasing conifer dominance that develops in later successional stages alters forest soil characteristics. Soil measurements were collected along a stand composition gradient: aspen dominated, aspen-conifer mix, conifer dominated and open meadow, which includes the range of conditions that exists through the stages of secondary succession in aspen-conifer forests. Soil chemistry, moisture content, respiration, and temperature were measured. There was a consistent trend in which aspen stands demonstrated higher mean soil nutrient concentrations than adjacent meadows, mixed or conifer stands. Soil moisture was significantly higher in aspen stands and meadows in early summer. Soil respiration was significantly higher in aspen stands than conifer stands or meadows throughout the summer. The results indicate that soil resource availability and respiration peak within aspen dominated stands that are present during early succession and then decrease as conifer abundance increases along our stand composition gradient, representative of stand characteristics present in mid to late successional stages. Emerging evidence from other studies suggest that these observed changes in soil characteristics with increasing conifer dominance may have negative feedbacks on aspen growth and vigor. The second study examined the facilitation effect between aspen and subalpine fir establishment. In subalpine forests, conifer species are often found intermixed with broadleaf species. However, few if any studies have explored the existence and influence of facilitation between broadleaf tree species and conifers. We have observed the general establishment of subalpine fir seedlings at the base of aspen trees in a subalpine forest, indicating that a facilitative relationship may exist. To explore the potential facilitative relationship during secondary succession in subalpine forests, subalpine fir seeds were planted across a stand composition gradient (aspen dominated → mixed → conifer dominated stands) at six study sites in the Fishlake National Forest. Seeds were placed during the fall of 2010, at distances of 0 cm and 25 cm in each cardinal direction at the base of mature aspen and subalpine fir trees in each of the three stand types. Seeds were also planted within stand interspaces and in adjacent meadows. Seedling emergence was recorded at the beginning of the summer of 2011 and seedling mortality was recorded in October 2011. Soil moisture content was measured at the position that seeds were placed during the summers of 2009 and 2011. Aspen dominated stands had subalpine fir germination that was on average 11 times greater than mixed or conifer dominated stands. Germination was 2.3 fold greater at the base of aspen trees than fir trees and two fold greater at the base of aspen trees than interspaces. Seedling mortality was lower in aspen stands but was not significantly influenced by position relative to mature trees. Soil moisture was highest in aspen dominated stands, with better soil moisture conditions at the base of aspen trees and in interspaces compared to the base of fir trees. Few if any studies regarding conifer facilitation have provided evidence for facilitation at the germination life stage, rather they focus on seedling survival. However, our study illustrates a strong facilitative interaction in which both aspen dominated stands and aspen trees increase the likelihood of subalpine fir seedling establishment by drastically increasing rates of subalpine fir germination. Because of aspen's primary role in initiating secondary succession through post-disturbance sucker regeneration, and the subsequent dependence of conifers on aspen for establishment, aspen mortality via competition with conifers under longer fire cycles, droughts, or intensive ungulate browsing may result in a loss of aspen-conifer forest communities in some locales.



College and Department

Life Sciences; Plant and Wildlife Sciences



Date Submitted


Document Type





disturbance, fire suppression, Populus tremuloides, subalpine fir, soil moisture, soil respiration, facilitation, aspen, germination, seedling survival