Fire impacts on restored shrublands following mining for heavy minerals near Eneabba, southwestern Australia
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Following mineral-sand mining in the northern sandplains near Eneabba, southwestern Australia, rehabilitation managers have the difficult task of restoring shrubland communities of exceptional plant species richness. Management aims to restore a fully functional and self-sustaining shrubland community with similar vegetation and resilience properties to that of the surrounding natural vegetation. This thesis examines the performance of the restoration program by Iluka Resources Ltd. (and their predecessors) by comparing current vegetation properties and their response to fires on previously mined land versus the surrounding natural shrubland. As biomass accumulates post-restoration, fires will return as a natural disturbance factor and, as a result, a desirable measure of restoration success might include the ability of the postmined lands to recover from disturbance. Pre-burnt plant species diversity, composition, structure and key functional attributes in four mined sites rehabilitated 8 (R8) to 24 (R24) years ago were compared with those of surrounding natural areas classified on the basis of substrate type (low and high sand dunes, shallow sand swales, sand over laterite and sand over limestone). The rehabilitated sites (except R8) had more species (about 140) than natural sites (about 100) with 12–37% species in common with natural sites. Floristic composition was most similar to the local swales and dunes (physically closest).Two strong colonizers, the fire-killed Acacia blakelyi and the fire-tolerant Melaleuca leuropoma, were universally present. Plant densities were about a quarter to half those of natural sites. Fire-resprouters were under-represented. Growth-form distributions were most similar to those of the dunes, with some woody shrubs up to 2.5 m tall present. Greater iron levels and soil hardness (penetrability) were the only soil factors consistently greater in rehabilitated sites. Following experimental fires at the same study sites, species richness fell by 22–41% in rehabilitated sites but increased by 4–29% in natural sites. Species present before fire were reduced by 40–56% in rehabilitated sites and 4–12% in natural sites. Only 42–66% of resprouting species recovered in rehabilitated sites, whereas 96–100% recovered in natural sites. Nonsprouting species recruitment was also lower in rehabilitated (18–57%) than natural (67–85%) sites. Seedling mortality over the first summer after fire was higher in rehabilitated sites (59-86% death of individuals) than in natural sites (14-60%). PCoA ordination showed that fire altered the floristic composition of rehabilitated sites much more than it did in natural sites, mostly attributable to the loss of the extant resprouter species. It was found that the smaller lignotuber size (source of dormant buds) recorded in rehabilitated (vs. natural) resprouters was responsible for their higher post-fire mortality. For equivalent crown size in ten common lignotuberous shrub species, lignotuber circumferences were, on average, 50% smaller at rehabilitated sites.As a result, overall persistence in these species was much lower in rehabilitated (mean of 52% alive, range of 11–93%) versus natural sites (mean of 96%, range of 79–100%), but improved with time since restoration for five of the ten selected species. Apart from differences in the age of the plants (natural sites having much older plants recruited after previous fires), the lower soil penetrability at rehabilitated sites may have restricted lignotuber development. A tradeoff favoring a higher crown volume to lignotuber size ratio was also apparent in nine of the ten species with greater crown volumes (by 37%) and smaller lignotubers (by 36%) in rehabilitated sites. Demographic attributes for six selected woody species were compared between rehabilitated and natural sites (~3-30 years since disturbance) to investigate growth patterns and optimum fire-return intervals. At matched years since restoration or last fire, nonsprouter species in rehabilitated sites grew larger (1.1 to 4.7 times) and produced/stored more viable seeds per plant (1.1 to 10.9 times). Despite older aged individuals in natural sites at matched years since restoration vs. last fire, restored resprouters were larger (1.1 to 3.6 times) and produced/stored more viable seeds (1.1 to 6.9 times). Although greater growth and fecundity rates were recorded in rehabilitated sites, the estimated optimum fire-return interval based on maximum seed production was similar in rehabilitated and natural sites for five out of six species.However, mean fire intervals typical of surrounding natural vegetation near the Eneabba area (13 years over the last 40 years) may not be suitable for rehabilitated minesites at Eneabba, whereby longer initial fire intervals (20–30 years) would better ensure persistence of resprouter individuals via the seedling recruitment strategy and resprouting strategy. Iv My study indicated that the returned vegetation can at present be classified as “rehabilitated” or “partially restored” but not “completely restored” since the original plant diversity, composition, structure, and resilience properties to fire have not yet been achieved. It may not be possible/realistic to achieve complete restoration since mining is such a destructive disturbance type that some complex ecological attributes may take centuries to develop. I discuss six key factors as important in improving the overall restoration success at Eneabba: 1) restoration of a deeper topsoil and looser subsoil profile; 2) collection of appropriate amounts of only local provenance species, mulch and topsoil; 3) control of highly competitive species; 4) management of fertilizer additions; 5) reseeding and replanting in subsequent years after the initial restoration treatments, including after initial fires; and 6) delaying the introduction of management fires until the restored vegetation develops sufficient fire-resilience properties.
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