Long-Term Forest Dynamics in a Two Mature Forested Watersheds on the Cumberland Plateau, TN

Non-equilibrium theory of forest dynamics suggests that forest communities may never actually attain a steady-state (climax) pattern of community composition, structure and function over time. Instead, forest communities are constantly in the process of responding to the last disturbance event, putting them on a constant and unpredictable trajectory of community. This theory may be particularly relevant to our contemporary understanding of Southern Appalachian forests which, over the last 100 years, have experienced the compounded effects of major anthropogenic influences including: fire suppression, deer overpopulation, introduced pathogens, timber harvesting and acid rain.

We have recently resampled permanent plots in the Cane Creek Watershed of Fall Creek Falls State Park, TN established in 1976 by George Ramseur.   These plots were also part of the original TVA watershed comparison study from the 1970's.  With this data will be able to analyze 40 years of change in forest composition and biomass accumulation at this site and compare to the Franklin State Forest site.


  • Leighton Reid, Missouri Botanical Garden

  • Sarah McCarthy, Alma College

  • Callie Oldfield, University of Georgia

Presented Paper:


  • *Reid, L.  2006.  Three decades of forest change on the Cumberland Plateau.   Honors Thesis. Dept. of Biology, University of the South. 

Lily takes picture of FCF crew
Callie and Zack speeding through a plot
Lily - master tape fixer!
Callie in the middle of a large sourwood clone
Katie with a Chinquapin!
Henry recording data
View of Cane Creek Watershed in Fall Creek Falls from Firetower
Forest plot in Cane Creek Watershed
Caterpillar matches chalk on Callie's pants
understory herbs

In this study, we have examined 37 years (1978 - 2015) of change in a mature, oak-hickory forested watershed on the Cumberland Plateau in southeastern Tennessee.  The five 1-hectare plots used in this study, located within the Cross Creek watershed of Franklin State Forest, were originally established by Sewanee professor, George Ramseur in 1978 as part of a TVA watershed comparison study.  Data collected from these plots have allowed us to study temporal trends in size-class distributions of constituent tree species as well as total biomass and herb distributions. We found that during this time period no tree species could be characterized as having a stable size class distribution.  All oak (Quercus spp.) and hickory (Carya spp.) species showed major declines in the density and distribution of saplings and subcanopy individuals, suggesting a future regeneration failure of these canopy dominants. Cornus florida, the third most abundant understory species in 1977 showed a >95% decline in density within the forest over the 38 years. In contrast, red maple (Acer rubrum) has increased as a canopy species.