In recent decades, substantial areas of North American tallgrass prairie have been lost to the establishment and expansion of woodlands and forests, including those dominated by eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana). This shift in dominant plant life form, from C4 grasses to coniferous trees, may be accompanied by changes in productivity, standing stocks of biomass and nutrients and biogeochemical cycles. The goal of this study was to quantify and compare major pools and fluxes of nitrogen in recently established (≤ 80 y) redcedar forests and adjacent native grasslands. Three former grassland sites in the Flint Hills region of Kansas that developed closed-canopy redcedar forests in the recent past were paired with adjacent grassland sites on similar soil type and topographic position (n = 3 sites/land cover type), and selected soil and plant nitrogen pools and fluxes were measured in replicate plots (n = 6/site) along transects in each forest or grassland site over a 20-mo period. We found few significant differences in median soil inorganic N pools or net N mineralization rates between the forest and grassland sites, though there was a trend for greater concentrations of inorganic N in grassland sites on most sample dates, and cumulative growing season net N mineralization averaged 15% less in forest sites (14.3 kg N·ha−1·yr−1) than in grassland sites (16.9 kg N·ha−1·yr−1). Mean aboveground plant productivity of forest sites (9162 kg ha−1 yr−1) was about 2.5× greater than that of comparable grasslands (similar soils and topographic position), in spite of similar levels of soil N availability. This resulted in an ecosystem-level nitrogen use efficiency (ANPP∶litterfall N) in forests that was more than double that of the grasslands they replaced. Additional changes in N cycling associated with redcedar forest development included large accumulations of N in aboveground biomass and transfer to the forest floor via litterfall; redcedar aboveground biomass contained 617 kg N/ha, forest floor litter N was 253 kg N/ha, and litterfall N flux was 41 kg ha−1·yr−1. These are substantial increases in aboveground biomass N accumulation, surface litter N inputs, and surface litter N accumulation compared to the native grasslands characteristic of this region. These fundamental shifts in ecosystem patterns and processes have the potential to alter regional biogeochemistry and both nitrogen and carbon storage throughout areas of the eastern Central Plains where coverage of redcedars is increasing.
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