Drainage is a globally common disturbance in forested peatlands that impacts peat soils, forest communities, and associated ecosystem functions, calling for informed hydrologic restoration strategies. The Great Dismal Swamp (GDS), located in Virginia and North Carolina, U.S.A., has been altered since colonial times, particularly by extensive ditch networks installed to lower water levels and facilitate timber harvests. Consequently, peat decomposition rates have accelerated, and red maple has become the dominant tree species, reducing the historical mosaic of bald cypress, Atlantic white-cedar, and pocosin stands. Recent repair and installation of water control structures aim to control drainage and, in doing so, enhance forest community composition and preserve peat depths. To help inform these actions, we established five transects of 15 plots each (75 plots total) along a hydrologic gradient where we measured continuous water levels and ecosystem attributes, including peat depths, microtopography, and forest composition and structure. We found significant differences among transects, with wetter sites having thicker peat, lower red maple importance, greater tree density, and higher overall stand richness. Plot-level analyses comported with these trends, clearly grouping plots by transects (via nonmetric multidimensional scaling) and resulting in significant correlations between specific hydrologic metrics and ecosystem attributes. Our findings highlight hydrologic controls on soil carbon storage, forest structure, and maple dominance, with implications for large-scale hydrologic restoration at GDS and in other degraded forested peatlands more broadly.
Read the article in Journal of Environmental Management.