The Panther Knob Preserve is important in the Central Appalachians because it is the region's largest high-elevation pitch pine (Pinus rigida) community, containing numerous rare and threatened plants and animals. Plant community structure and evidence of fire in 2008 were quantified to (a) document successional changes since 1985, and (b) test the hypothesis of pitch pine regeneration failure without recent fire. Diameter at breast height (dbh) of trees and percent cover of plants within 19 plots, each 20 × 20 m, were measured. Increment borings were used to estimate stand age, and evidence of fire, such as bark charring and soil charcoal, was recorded. Mineral soil from the top 10 cm was collected to evaluate the connection between soil characteristics and plant composition. Cluster analysis of percent cover values identified four plant community types. Diameter distributions, age structure, and the presence of only seven seedlings indicated little recent pine regeneration on the plateau. Comparisons with Fleming's (1985) observations showed that pines are taller but declined in percent cover, that ericaceous shrubs are denser, and that the threatened variable sedge, Carex polymorpha, has declined. Charred woody debris, fire scars, or soil charcoal occurred at 16 of 19 sites. Plant community structure, represented by nonmetric multidimensional scaling (NMS) ordination axes, was not correlated directly with the presence of fire evidence or soil mineral nutrients (principal components analysis [PCA] axes). A new conceptual model of pine dynamics on Panther Knob is introduced. Successional pathways with and without fire are discussed in the context of management.
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Vol. 80 • No. 3