Succession describes a habitat’s growth from emergence to great age. Primary succession happens after catastrophic disturbance—glaciation, volcanic-island-creation, etc.—essentially removes all living material. Here’s a series for post-glacial succession in Áak’w Táak, inland from little lake, (Mendenhall Valley), inferred from a chronosequence on mesic surfaces (that is: not too wet, not too dry). Succession on poorly- or excessively-drained surfaces is quite different.

A Postglacial barrens with lichens, moss & dwarf fireweed. ● B Alder/willow thicket with small spruce saplings. ● C1 Thickets still productive but overtopped by cottonwood & spruce. ● C2 Cottonwood & spruce close canopy over senescing thickets. ● D Spruces overtop senescing cottonwoods. Small shade-tolerant hemlocks in subcanopy. Depauperate, mossy understory. Only after ~200 years does blueberry fill in. ● E After many centuries without stand-replacing disturbance, hemlock-dominated old growth develops, distinguished from D by gappy canopy, rich, patchwork of shrub & subcanopy layers, plentiful deer forbs & abundant standing & down dead wood.

Check out the Succession illustration below for comparison of secondary succession after logging and streamside flooding.

Successional stages  Community development takes many alternative pathways, but in Southeast Alaska we can at least make some rough generalization about structural stages. Here’s 5 stages span a series on well-drained lowland soils from earliest herbaceous colonizers to old-growth forest types.

1) Herbaceous communities Only the most violent of disturbances can knock a forest community all the way back to herbaceous successional stages. More typically, as with logging or blowdown, the initial response to disturbance is led by shrubs and tree saplings. Meadows on well-drained surfaces are fairly uncommon and usually ephemeral, because forest will be the concluding habitat here. One such community is uplift meadow on surfaces raised from tidal elevations by glacial rebound. Another is maintained in early successional status by repeated disturbance on the slopes of very active avalanche chutes. These sites are swept so frequently that even the flexible Sitka alder is incapable of gaining a foothold. Instead, productive communities of grasses, sedges, ferns,
and tall herbs such as fireweed and cow parsnip may develop, growing most luxuriantly on bombarded colluvial toe slopes.

2) Shrub thickets  Early shrub stages of post-logging (secondary) succession on upland sites are dominated by species that already existed in the understory of the logged forest: blueberry, salmonberry, and ferns. These species, plus trailing black currant, account for 90% of plant production in young Southeast clearcuts. This production increases with time, until the new forest closes canopy after 20–30 years. In post-glacial (primary) succession, no remnant shrubs from previous communities are poised to inherit the newly uncovered landscape. The first shrub to dominate the landscape is usually Sitka alder.

3) Mixed conifer-deciduous  Thicket species are short-lived, as indicated in the transition from stages C1 to C2 in the cartoon above. Because alder and willow are shade-intolerant, young plants rarely survive under the foliage of their parents. Aging willow and Sitka alder bushes begin to die back when overtopped by red alder, black cottonwood, Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, or western hemlock. Only in perennially disturbed sites such as slide chutes can alder/willow thickets persist indefinitely. Large expanses of the mixed conifer-deciduous forest are limited mostly to post-glacial and active alluvial surfaces of the mainland.

4) Young, even-aged conifer  After logging or high-intensity blowdown on upland slopes, maturing forests often enter a stage in which young, densely stocked conifers close canopy, shading out the understory. From a forester’s perspective, this first-come-first-served second-growth has been called the “stem-exclusion stage.” Less vigorous overstory trees (“stems” in forester lingo) gradually die off and little colonization of tree seedlings can occur until canopy opens up again. From a community ecologist’s perspective, the young, closed canopy forest has been called the “depauperate understory stage.” Cover of shrubs and herbs drops to almost nil, typically for a century or more. In primary succession, forest takes longer to reach this closed-canopy stage (D in cartoon above).

5) Old growth  Stage E in the cartoon. Uneven-aged, with much more complex diverse structure than stage D. For resources on old-growth forest, see Nature>Habitats>Terrestrial>Forest.

In this section

Nature near the schools: Sayéik (Gastineau) Elementary. 1991

Materials from the Eisenhower Math and Science series In March, 1991, with Discovery director Cinda Stanek and naturalist Cathy Pohl,…

1991 | Richard Carstensen | 22 pages

Sayéik historical series

History from the air Georeferencing old and recent vertical air photos in ArcMap makes it easy to export exactly scaled-&-aligned…

2021 | Richard Carstensen | 8 pages

Forests after logging or glaciers

Effects of age and succession type on forest overstory and understory In 1991 I assisted highschool students Joey Bosworth and…

1991 | Joey Bosworth & Erika O'Sullivan | 1 page poster

L’ux, H-word glacier

Journal for my favorite glacial valley A scoping document and collection of journals from 40 years of visits to what…

2020 | Richard Carstensen | 62 pages

Nature near the schools: Natural communities

Powerpoint & script for Discovery Nature Studies One of my educational mentors, a charismatic high school teacher, when hearing of…

1990 | Richard Carstensen | powerpoint & script

Nature near the schools: Mendenhall River Elementary. 1991

Materials from the Eisenhower Math and Science series In February, 1991, with Gustavus master-naturalist Greg Streveler, Discovery director Cinda Stanek…

1991 | Carstensen, Streveler, Stanek & Merli | workshop materials

Special trees in Nettle Slide

New angles on Tʼóokʼ dleit ḵaadí, nettle snowslide (Behrends Slide) Late September, 2020  It’s probably time we stopped calling this…

2020 | Richard Carstensen | 90 second slideshow

History and future of the Refuge

Rebound, succession, fish&wildlife, and aviation on Juneau’s Mendenhall Wetlands In 2011, Jeff Sauer at Juneau Audubon asked for a presentation…

2011 | Richard Carstensen | 36-minute slideshow

Historical imagery from ArcGIS Online

The Wayback app JuneauNature relies heavily on historical series from precisely registered aerial photographs, presented either in slideshows, with long…

2020 | Richard Carstensen |

Fish Creek studies

DSE-SAWC collaboration Beginning in early 2020, Discovery Southeast is assisting the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition with investigations at Fish Creek…

2020 | Richard Carstensen |

Meadow fire at Eagle Beach

Burn succession, Asx‘ée, twisted tree On May 9th, 2020, some camper-kids with lighters ignited a pretty dramatic grassfire at Crow…

2020 | Richard Carstensen | 14-page journal, 6-minute slideshow

Staney Creek

Stream work documentation on Tàan, sea lion (Prince of Wales Island) The Nature Conservancy, US Forest Service, and dozens of…

2020 | Richard Carstensen | 19 minute slideshow

Seasonal re-photography

Repeat photography for study of seasonal change Until 1988 I abstained from cameras, content with pencil sketching and pen-&-ink illustration.…

2020 | Richard Carstensen | 3.5 minute video & 63-page pdf

Staff hike in Dzantik’i Héeni basin

On a sleety December 11th, 2018, Discovery Southeast staff (and Clay Good, board) hiked together in the lower valley of…

2018 | Richard Carstensen | 7 minutes

False Island journal 20080806

Four years into the Ground-truthing Project, Bob Christensen and I helped explore northern Shee Ká, above Shee (Peril Strait). This…

2008 | Richard Carstensen | 70 pages

Hammered gems & unproductive leftovers.

In 2008, Bob Christensen and I were 3 years into the Ground-truthing Project. During those 3 years, the Forest Service…

2008 | Carstensen & Christensen | 30 pages

Ground-truthing Project final report, 2005

The Ground-truthing Project, sponsored by Sitka Conservation Society, ran from 2005 to 2010. Kenyon Fields at SCS administered the program,…

2005 | Carstensen & Christensen | 63 pages

2008 flight over Sitka use area

In September, 2008, I ferried to Sitka to help Sitka Conservation Society host funders and biologists. In a Beaver, we…

2008 | Richard Carstensen | 29 pages

Suitability for logging

In 2009, after several years of cruising the Tongass timberlands under the auspices of Sitka Conservation Society, I wrote them…

2009 | Richard Carstensen | 19 pages

Fickle fashions: stereoscopy

I wrote this as an appendix to my report with Kathy Hocker on repeat photography. It reviews trends in a…

2013 | Richard Carstensen | 6 pages