What can affect your soils?

Your woodland soil can be impacted by many different factors, from climate and fire to past and present management activities.

Fire and soil health
Wildfire, depending on the severity of the burn, can impact nutrients, water absorption, and the chemical makeup of your soil. By consuming organic matter, both living and dead, fire alters several core aspects of forest and soil dynamics. The loss of live plants and their leaves and roots, means that when rain falls, it is not slowed by leaves and is less likely to be absorbed by roots. Similarly, the loss of dead organic matter consumed in fire, deprives soil of its protective and absorptive top layer. Partially decomposed organic matter can hold five times its weight in water, and it provides a blanket that slows evaporation, moderates soil temperature and slowly releases nutrients into the topsoil layer.

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Any fire can disrupt soil moisture, nutrient content and temperature, but the hotter the fire, the greater the disruption. A cool prescribed fire may have very minimal impact on soil, and actually increase productivity and soil health. But a severe wildfire may have long-term effects for both your woodland and its watershed. Impacts can include increased runoff and erosion, loss of soil moisture and shifts in the timing of freeze-thaw cycles due to loss of insulating organic material.

In general, severe fire can throw forest dynamics into an ecological chaos that can take many years to recover from. The best way to protect your soil, watershed and woodland in general, is to work toward a fire resilient forest that follows natural fire cycles.

Forest management and soil health
If your lands have been logged or farmed in the past, the soils can suffer lingering impacts from intensive agricultural practices. Avoiding further soil damage from management activities, and employing sound forest stewardship practices, will help your soil heal and your woodland thrive.

Most forest management activities have some impact on soil, but you can minimize those impacts by planning activities and infrastructure with soil health in mind.

Soil compaction
The use of heavy equipment and presence of livestock can rut and compact soil, making it difficult for roots to grow and nutrients and water to travel through soil. Compaction also squeezes out the air pockets that allow small, beneficial organisms to move and breathe. When soil becomes compacted, water cannot penetrate and is more likely to run off into streams, eroding the earth where it travels.

Soils are most vulnerable to compaction and rutting when they are saturated so one of the easiest ways to avoid damaging your soil is to limit equipment traffic to drier seasons, or when the ground is frozen. Vehicle travel on unfrozen wetland soils can cause severe, long-term damage and can be costly to fix.

You can also minimize damage to soils by:

  • limiting traffic to the smallest area possible
  • using “low ground pressure” equipment when possible
  • employing techniques like slash mats to reduce impacts
  • minimizing area occupied by infrastructure like roads, landings and skid trails
  • avoiding dozing into windrows and other techniques that move soil away from seedlings
  • retaining slash, scattered on site
  • avoiding short rotations
  • avoiding whole-tree harvesting in nutrient poor sites
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