Ford, C.R. and J.R. Brooks. 2002. Detecting forest stress and decline in response to increasing river flow in southwest Florida, USA. For. Ecol. & Mgmt.160:45-64. WED-00-093
Forest stress and decline resulting from increased river levels were investigated in Myakka River State Park (MRSP), FL, USA. Since 1977, land-use changes around the upper Myakka River watershed have resulted in significant increases in water entering the river, which have caused extensive mortality in the upper watershed. The present study assessed whether similar forest stress and mortality was occurring downstream within the park. Our objectives were to (1) determine if tree die-off and/or stress resulting from increased river levels were present in MRSP and (2) determine the relationship between historical and present river levels regimes and growth of actively managed forested stands undergoing restoration located both above and below a dam. We used two methodological approaches. The first was recording indications of tree stress and decline (crown dieback, crown thinning, trunk rot, foliage discoloration, and parasitism) in Fraxinus caroliniana Miller dominated forested wetlands, Pinus elliottii Englem. var. densa Little & Dorman dominated mesic pine flatwoods, and Quercus laurifolia Michaux dominated oak palm hammocks. Our second approach was tree-ring analyses, which allows for more detailed analyses of growth in response to precipitation and river flow (a surrogate variable for water table depth) in the pine flatwoods stands. Our results indicate significant stress and decline in some forested wetlands upstream of the dam, significant mortality in wet-mesic pine flatwoods sites close to the river, and significant amounts of stress in wet-mesic pine flatwoods sites upstream of the dam. F caroliniana sites located upstream of the dam had more individuals with symptoms of stress than those downstream of the dam (67% versus 43%, P = 0.031). In Q. laurifolia sites, 7(=85% of the trees had evidence of flooding stress and mortality, which is comparable to distributions found in severely disturbed forest in the upper watershed. P elliottii var. densa sites located <1000 m from the river had higher mortality than sites located >1050 m from the river (P < 0.01), and the stressed trees in sites upstream of the dam had significantly lower growth rates in the 1990s versus the 1960s than those downstream. Although. the onset of stress and decline coincided with increasing river levels, we found that river levels were positively correlated with tree growth. both before and after flow increases in the system. Increasing river levels may play an indirect role through increased competition in the stress and decline in wet-mesic pine flatwoods, however, increased river levels seems to be the direct cause for stress and decline found in forested wetland stands.