Effects of past land use on spatial heterogeneity of soil nutrients in southern appalachian forests

Jennifer M. Fraterrigo, Monica G. Turner, Scott M. Pearson, Philip Dixon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We examined patterns of nutrient heterogeneity in the mineral soil (0-15 cm depth) of 13 southern Appalachian forest stands in western North Carolina >60 yr after abandonment from pasture or timber harvest to investigate the long-term effects of land use on the spatial distribution and supply of soil resources. We measured soil carbon (C), nitrogen (N), acid-extractable phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg) concentrations and pools, and potential net N mineralization and nitrification rates to evaluate differences in mean values, variance at multiple scales, and fine-scale spatial structure. While comparisons of averaged values rarely indicated that historical land use had an enduring effect on mineral soil or N cycling, differences in variance and spatial structure suggested that former activities continue to influence nutrient distributions by altering their spatial heterogeneity. Patterns differed by element, but generally variance of soil C, N, and Ca decreased and variance of soil P, K, and Mg increased with intensive past land use. Changes in variance were most conspicuous and consistent locally (<28 m), but C, Ca, P, and Mg also exhibited appreciable differences in variance at coarser scales (>150 m). High variability in soil compaction resulted in some changes in scale-dependent patterns of nutrient pool variance compared with nutrient concentration variance. It also affected the variance of N cycling rates, such that mass-based rates varied less and area-based rates varied more in intensively used areas than in reference stands. Geostatistical analysis suggested that past land use homogenized the spatial structure of soil C, K, and P in former pastures. In contrast, logged stands had highly variable spatial patterning for Ca. These results suggest that land use has persistent, multi-decadal effects on the spatial heterogeneity of soil resources, which may not be detectable when values are averaged across sites. By interacting with patterns of variability in the plant and heterotrophic biota, differences in nutrient distribution and supply could alter the composition and diversity of forest ecosystems. Scale-dependent changes in nutrient heterogeneity could also complicate efforts to determine biogeochemical budgets and cycling rates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)215-230
Number of pages16
JournalEcological Monographs
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Carbon
  • Cations
  • Forest ecosystem recovery
  • Grazing
  • Land-use history
  • Logging
  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Semivariograms

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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