Carbon and ecohydrological priorities in managing woody encroachment: UAV perspective 63 years after a control treatment

Temuulen Ts Sankey, Jackson Leonard, Margaret M. Moore, Joel B. Sankey, Adam Belmonte

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Woody encroachment, including both woody species expansion and density increase, is a globally observed phenomenon that deteriorates arid and semi-arid rangeland health, biodiversity, and ecosystem services. Mechanical and chemical control treatments are commonly performed to reduce woody cover and restore ecohydrologic function. While the immediate impacts of woody control treatments are well documented in short-term studies, treatment impacts at decadal scales are not commonly studied. Using a controlled herbicide treatment from 1954 in the Sierra Ancha Experimental Forest in central Arizona, USA, we quantify woody encroachment and associated aboveground carbon accumulation in treated and untreated watersheds. Woody encroachment and aboveground carbon are estimated using high resolution multispectral images and photogrammetric data from a fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). We then combine the contemporary UAV image-derived estimates with historical records from immediately before and after the treatment to consider long-term trends in woody vegetation cover, aboveground carbon, water yield, and sedimentation. Our results indicate that the treatment has had a lasting impact. More than six decades later, woody cover in two treated watersheds are still significantly lower compared to two control watersheds, even though woody cover increased in all four drainages. Aboveground woody carbon in the treated watersheds is approximately one half that accumulated in the control watersheds. The historical records indicate that herbicide treatment also increased water yield and reduced annual sedimentation. Given the sustained reduction in woody cover and aboveground woody biomass in treated watersheds, we infer that the herbicide treatment has had similarly long lasting impacts on ecohydrological function. Land managers can consider legacy impacts from control treatments to better balance carbon and ecohydrological consequences of woody encroachment and treatment activities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number124053
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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