Direct and indirect drivers of instream wood in the interior Pacific Northwest, USA: decoupling climate, vegetation, disturbance, and geomorphic setting

Abstract

Instream wood is a driver of geomorphic change in low-order streams, frequently altering morphodynamic processes. Instream wood is a frequently measured component of streams, yet it is a complex metric, responding to ecological and geomorphic forcings at a variety of scales. Here we seek to disentangle the relative importance of physical and biological processes that drive wood growth and delivery to streams across broad spatial extents. In so doing, we ask two primary questions: (1) is riparian vegetation a composite variable that captures the indirect effects of climate and disturbance on instream wood dynamics? (2) What are the direct and indirect relationships between geomorphic setting, vegetation, climate, disturbance, and instream wood dynamics? We measured riparian vegetation composition and wood frequency and volume at 720 headwater reaches within the American interior Pacific Northwest. We used ordination to identify relationships between vegetation and environmental attributes, and subsequently built a structural equation model to identify how climate and disturbance directly affect vegetation composition and how vegetation and geomorphic setting directly affect instream wood volume and frequency. We found that large wood volume and frequency are directly driven by vegetation composition and positively correlated to wildfire, elevation, stream gradient, and channel bankfull width. Indicator species at reaches with high volumes of wood were generally long-lived, conifer trees that persist for extended durations once delivered to stream habitats. Wood dynamics were also indirectly mediated by factors that shape vegetation: wildfire, precipitation, elevation, and temperature. We conclude that wood volume and frequency are driven by multiple interrelated climatic, geomorphic, and ecological variables. Vegetation composition and geomorphic setting directly mediate indirect relationships between landscape environmental processes and instream large wood. Where climate or geomorphic setting preclude tree establishment, reaches may remain naturally depauperate of instream wood unless wood is transported from elsewhere in the stream network.

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Riparian Ecology and Conservation helps to exchange information on riparian science and policy by focusing on riparian ecology, conservation, ecological restoration, hydrology, geomorphology, sedimentation and management. It publishes empirical or theoretical studies that cross disciplines such ecology, geology, social science, ecological economics, conservation and management.

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