Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences

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Ecosystem functioning lags the recovery of plant communities, new study finds

Student researchers assist Virginia Matzek study the Sacramento River
Restoration ecologists seek to create, or recreate, functioning ecosystems with all their flora and fauna intact. But a new study from Santa Clara University suggests that bringing back the flora and fauna might be the easy part. Work by Virginia Matzek and her student colleagues in the restored forests of the Sacramento River shows that aspects of ecosystem functioning, like nutrient cycling, are much slower to recover during restoration than aspects of vegetative structure, like biomass.

The Sacramento River restoration is one of the most ambitious restoration efforts ever undertaken in California, covering more than 6,000 acres of the floodplain in newly planted native riparian forest that had been formerly lost to farming. Previous research had established that the restoration sites were quite successful in improving biodiversity and habitat values, but little work had been done on the functioning of the ecosystem.

Matzek and a large crew of undergraduates studied the forest from 2011 to 2014, measuring biomass and vegetative structure, nitrogen and carbon mineralization, fine root productivity, and nutrient-use efficiency, among other metrics of ecosystem process. By comparing restored sites of different ages to native remnant forests in the same area, they found that biomass and forest structure were generally recovered or on a quick trajectory to do so, but other measures of ecosystem function lagged behind.

In the "Implications for Practice" section of the paper, Matzek and her co-authors state that, as restoration is called on to provide ecosystem services, managers may need to expand their monitoring of ecosystem recovery to include measures of functioning alongside measures of biodiversity.

The study was co-authored by Shawn Warren '14 (shown, withdrawing gas samples for the carbon mineralization study) and Colleen Fisher '14. The paper can be accessed on the website of the journal Restoration Ecologyhere.

Photo of Sacramento River restoration by Geoff Fricker.