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Background. Restoration of degraded forest ecosystem is crucial for regional sustainable development. To protect the country’s fragile and fragmented environment, the Chinese government has initiated an ecological engineering, the Natural Forest Protection Program in seventeen provinces in China since 1998. Fully hillside-closed forest protection (vegetation restoration naturally without any artificial disturbance) was one of vital measures of the Natural Forest Protection Program applied national wide. Whether plant diversity, biomass and age structure of dominant tree species and soil nutrients in protected stands may become better with increase of protected period are still open problems. Methods. We investigated community diversity, biomass of dominant tree species, age structures, and analyzed soil chemical properties of a Pinus tabulaeformis population at protected sites representing different protected ages at Huanglongshan Forest Bureau on the Loess Plateau, Shaanxi, China. Results. Plant species richness of Pinus tabulaeformis community was significantly affected (p<0.05) by forest protection and the effect attenuated with protected age.Shannon evenness index of plant species generally increased with protected age. Stands protected for 45 years had the highest tree biomass and considerable natural regeneration capacity. Contents of organic carbon, available phosphorus and available potassium in top soil increased in protected stands less than 45 years, however decreased significantly thereafter. Long-term forest protection also decreased content of mineral nitrogen in top soil. Discussion. We found that richness of shrubs and herbs was significantly affected by forest protection, and evenness indices of tree, shrub and herb increased inconsistently with protected ages. Forest protection created more complex age structures and tree densities with increasing age of protection. Content of soil mineral nitrogen at 0-20 cm soil depth showed a decreasing trend in stands of up to 30 years. Soil available phosphorus and potassium contents were higher in stands with greater proportions of big and middle trees. Long-term protection (> 45 years) of Pinus tabulaeformis stand in southeast Loess Plateau, China, may be associated with decreasing plant species richness, proportion of medium to large trees, dominant biomass of Pinus tabulaeformis and soil nutrients.
Version 2 has a few minor sentence reediting to clarify and read better. The main change is to format it to a more easily and coherently readable form. Policy issues, ecological restoration programs and payments, and succession of regional vegetation related to the Natural Forest Protection Program had been paid much attention in the past. We reported changes of plant diversity, biomass and age structure of dominant tree species, dynamic of soil nutrients in protected stands, and the optimal age for the fully hillside-closed forest protection. This is intended to be the final version and I have no intention of submitting elsewhere. Version 1 was submitted to Peer J and PrePrints (v1) have been created. We carefully read the version (v1) and revised some errors of grammar in the new version (v2).