Indigenous Land Management & Pre-settlement Forests in Western New England

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JHarkness
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Indigenous Land Management & Pre-settlement Forests in Western New England

Post by JHarkness » Sun Jul 11, 2021 9:22 pm

Hello all,

It has been a while since I last posted on here, but I'm interested to hear some of your thoughts on this issue and its conservation implications.

I've devoted a lot of time and energy lately into trying to make some sense of indigenous land management (specifically burning) and how it fits into the ecology of western New England. Debate on this issue seems remarkably polarized, with neither side taking into full account the evidence for and against their hypotheses.

There are an overwhelming number of sources which claim that our forests were extremely open and park-like at the time European settlers first wrote about them – I am sure you are all quite familiar with them. Most don't specify how much of the landscape was managed in this way, but some do take it to an extreme. One outrageous account (written in my hometown) claims that the entirety of the landscape was regularly burnt over, and that by 1875, our forests had _regrown_ considerably from the time first settlers reached the area (in the early 18th century). Obviously, this is an exaggeration, and probably has negative connotations against the local indigenous groups, considering how derogatively it spoke of them "ruining timber and game." An account written much earlier is distilled into a paragraph in a recent writing on the history of the area (it is unsourced, however), and describes upland forests too dense for travel, and extensive beaver wetlands, bogs, and swamps throughout the drainage of several tributaries of the Housatonic River -- a stark contrast to what can best be said to be 'savanna' described in the 1875 account.

From an ecological perspective (and from that of a serious forager), there are many problems with these accounts (at least in this part of New England). One of my main problems is the oak-dominance so frequently described. Here (in the upper Housatonic watershed), we do have natural oak forests, but mostly oaks occur on post-agricultural lands, and are sparse in relatively undisturbed forests, except for xeric, fire-prone, ridge-top habitats. If oak forests were truly the dominant forest community on the land in pre-settlement times, then some significant disturbances to natural succession must have been occurring. Most authors attribute this to fire, and many directly to the burning practices of indigenous peoples, but it assumes a couple facts: 1) that our native oaks are necessarily fire-tolerant (even fire dependent), and 2) that oak forests were preferred for the food they produce.

I have recently spent time in several burnt areas in the Shawangunks (across the Hudson Valley from the Taconics) and have been intrigued (though not entirely surprised) by the paucity of oak regeneration in burnt areas. Mostly, the new growth in these sites consists of ericaceous shrubs, birches, poplars, and cherries. Oaks are present (among other species), but certainly oak dominance is not favored by this kind of disturbance even in naturally fire-prone sites. My explanation for this has to do primarily with seed survival. Anyone who has foraged and dried acorns for storage will know the low temperatures at which acorns are killed (I've observed no survivorship at exposure to 140F for several hours). Oaks rely primarily on seed dispersers (mostly squirrels and blue jays) to bury their acorns in the top few inches of soil (some germination also occurs under thick leaf litter). I have not seen any studies looking into soil temperatures at various depths and in fires of varying intensity (if anyone knows of any, especially in eastern forests, I would gladly appreciate being pointed in the right direction), but my assumption is that soil temperatures during a fire intense enough to remove a significant portion of the canopy will be well above lethal levels at the depths acorns are buried. Young, thin-barked trees would similarly be killed in a fire of this intensity. Regeneration, then, would have to come from mature survivors of the fire. Doubtless, survivors will be stressed (heat killing of small branches, damage to large limbs, trunk, etc.), and would produce limited acorn crops for several years. This means that small-seeded plants and rhizomatous shrubs (especially members of Ericaceae) would have a competitive advantage over oak regeneration. This isn’t to say that oak regeneration can’t occur following fires, rather that the oak species native to this region are less fire-tolerant than is often stated and that fire does not necessarily favor their regeneration over other species.

The second problem is the assumption that there was a significant interest among the native peoples in creating and maintaining this habitat. The main reason this would have been practiced is that acorns are a nutritious food for humans and other animals; they would have been an important plant food, and they would have attracted several species of game animals. Clearly oak forests were important to these people, but not all of their food came from these communities, and the importance of oak forests in proportion to other habitats (e.g., floodplains, swamps) is probably significantly tainted by European worldviews.

It is curious, to say the least, that Quercus alba is so frequently described, while other oaks that today are much more widespread in the region are left unmentioned. The 1875 account briefly describes the forest composition as seen by the first settlers of the area, describing white oak, tuliptree, elm, and black cherry without specifying their abundance. The dominant species seen today are not even mentioned, such as hemlock, beech, sugar and red maples, red oak, birches, etc. No fire-adapted species are described in this account.

White oak is significantly more abundant in the lower elevations of the Hudson Valley and in the coastal plain of southern New England than in the Taconic Mountains. Here, by some combination of scarcity of sexually mature individuals (and therefore poor pollination), competition, and climate at higher elevations, these are not reliable crop trees (I know of none within my town that have fruited within the last four years). They clearly reproduce; my point is that they are a limited and unreliable food source here (I’ve only ever foraged a few handfuls (I mean that literally) while red and chestnut oaks have fruited much more generally even in drought years – though there is considerable variation corresponding to the mast cycle). My observations from low elevations near the Hudson River indicate that this is not the case there, though Q. rubra acorns are still a significantly more abundant food source.

The acorns of Q. alba are frequently said to be “sweet.” I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this, such that I wonder if proponents of this idea have ever tasted an acorn or studied any of the analyses of tannin content in acorns. The tannin content of Q. alba reportedly varies from 3.3 to 5.6%, and that of Q. rubra, from 7.4 to 9.8% (Waino and Forbes, 1941, Korstian, 1927). Though Q. rubra acorns are indeed higher in tannin content than Q. alba acorns, both still require leaching if they are to be consumed in any significant quantity and have a similar astringent taste. The relatively minimal difference between the tannin content of these two species does not render one a superior food. Thayer calls the sweet acorn, “the Holy Grail of wild foods.” It is foolish to assume that indigenous peoples in this part of this world were not aware of this and disregarded red oak acorns; more likely is that this myth of the “sweet” acorn is much older than modern foraging literature and was at least somewhat prevalent in colonial times (acorns were also an important food in European cultures into the 19th century.) Considering the familiarity with the acorns of several members of the white oak section native to Europe, it is reasonable to assume that members of this section in North America would have been preferred. Thayer provides an explanation as to why white oak acorns taste less bitter than red oak acorns when loose on the tongue, but when bitten into (or ground into flour) they become bitter due to the tannin being distributed in different tissues of the cotyledons.

My personal observations suggest that Q. alba is in fact less fire tolerant than red oaks and thick-barked white oaks (e.g., Q. montana), due to thin bark and fall germination of acorns (acorns are not dormant in soil during fire season). Therefore, even extensive blanket burning of forests would not account for a significant abundance of white oak, nor would the lack thereof result in the significant and rapid change to dominance of red oak and non-oak species.

In summary, oaks were definitely important to the native peoples of this region, but to assume that significant landscape alteration was occurring solely for the purpose of promoting a single species based on second-hand accounts, written by individuals potentially with agendas of damaging the reputations of indigenous people, or of appealing to settlers seeking productive, easy-to-clear farmland is not evidence-based (these accounts are not scientific studies and should not be treated as such).

There is evidence that our forests were not significantly altered through burning. Old growth forests are an important piece of evidence, having undergone relatively little ecological change within the past few centuries. However, old growth forests comprise only a tiny fraction of our forests today and may not be entirely representative of broader forest communities considering their sheltered and/or rugged locations. Ice Glen and Mohawk Trail State Forest I believe are fairly representative of lower and mid-slope forests in the region; I would value some input on what others think of this.

Unlogged summits and ridgetops offer another clue, as do some wetlands. However, an important (and unfortunately overlooked) situation occurs in charcoal lands, where the forests were once aggressively logged, near to the point of clearcutting, but nonetheless, remained as forests. Today, these sites generally support higher floristic diversity than post-agricultural lands (i.e., plowed or grazed lands), have some of the largest, oldest trees and most developed old growth characteristics outside of genuine old growth forests untouched by agriculture and industrialization.

In the Housatonic watershed, these sites are widespread, and are easily identifiable by the presence of charcoal hearths. These are almost without exception steep and/or rocky sites with poor soils that would support limited agriculture; many were also managed as woodlots.

The sites I have observed are not significantly different in species composition from post-agricultural forests, but generally have a lower proportion of oak, and a higher proportion of hemlock, beech, and yellow birch (however, beech bark disease has reduced beech on many sites). Striped maple, mountain maple, and red elderberry are often significantly more abundant on these sites; and herbaceous diversity is generally higher. White oak does appear to be less abundant on these sites than in post-agricultural lands. These sites are definitely worth the attention of ecologists and botanists.

Of particular interest is a study published in 1913 by Yale ecologist George E. Nichols of an old growth forest in Colebrook, CT, on the edge of the Housatonic watershed. This forest was unfortunately already in the process of being logged at the time of this publication but offers tantalizing clues (and beautiful photos) as to what our pre-settlement upland forests were like. I am familiar with the study site and can confirm that today it is hardly distinguishable from the logged lands in the area.

Here is the link to the study: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40595403?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

I intend to let George Nichols speak for himself about the forests of the region, but I do want to bring up a couple important points. 1) Beech and hemlock were co-dominant, together comprising 55% of the canopy, 2) red oak comprised only 6% of the canopy, and 3) chestnut also comprised 6% of the canopy. As an interesting aside, as far as I am aware, this is the only study coming out of our region to measure chestnut abundance in relation to other canopy species; this may suggest that chestnut was not nearly as common in our pre-settlement forests as some sources indicate, but that this is a generalization from southern and central Appalachian forests. (The diameters listed for chestnut are also interesting.)

Of particular interest is the floristic richness of this forest, including many species now uncommon in the area, and some state-listed rare species. Most of these species I have only encountered locally in remote, spruce-dominated wetlands.

Additionally, he notes that chestnut and red oak significantly increased on logged sites, largely owing to their ability to stump sprout, though white pine and Betula papyrifera were generally dominant. Carya glabra, C. ovata, and other xerophytic species have entered, while many of the mesophytic flora have declined or disappeared entirely. He notes that a similar change has most likely occurred in other forests throughout inland Connecticut, only associating a natural dominance of xerophytic species (an oak-hickory type) with forests near the coast.

He notes the occurrence of a few fires in the vicinity of Colebrook but does not elaborate much on them. These most likely are anthropogenic fires.

This study I think raises two important questions. 1) if a much higher degree of mesophytism is consistent with late forest succession in this region (as we know from other old growth sites), then how could these sites have been so regularly and significantly burned? And 2) could it be that the ecological conditions and therefore indigenous land use encountered in coastal plain forests were generalized to the rest of southern New England?
As for the first question, I am inclined to think that these sites would have seen natural fire only very rarely, and that anthropogenic fire (whether accidentally or intentionally set) would not reach the intensities needed to significantly alter forest structure and composition.

I don’t think there is much to add about the second question, but it is not unreasonable to assume such generalizations have occurred.

To summarize all of this, I’ve come to think that indigenous peoples did not significantly alter forest structure and composition on a landscape scale. That is not to say, however, that I do not think management of natural communities was occurring. My suspicion is that forests with a natural abundance of nut-bearing trees probably would have been managed to increase fruit yield, but this does not mean blanket burning. Damage to crop trees would have been detrimental, so my thinking is that individual competing trees would have been girdled (most likely through small, controlled fires) – similar to crop tree release as practiced by modern foresters. I also think that _some_ blanket burning was occurring, just that it was not used to significantly alter the landscape. I mentioned previously that many ericaceous shrubs respond positively to fire and associated tree mortality. Some of the most fire-tolerant native ericaceous shrubs are also important fruit crop species (e.g., Vaccinium angustifolium and Gaylussacia baccata). These species have a long history of use by indigenous peoples in our region, and natural occurrences were likely managed to some extent. Some wetlands or low-lying meadows may also have been managed in this way. Most likely, these kinds of management were practiced in or near river valleys where populations were clustered.

To assume that the indigenous people in this region burnt over a huge portion of the landscape to facilitate travel, increase the abundance of nut crops, and attract game alone is a great oversimplification (and, I feel, an insult) of the diverse needs they met through the myriad of native species occurring on our landscapes.
There are conservation implications of this as well. With a greater interest in using fire to manage ecological communities in this region, we are at some risk of harming existing diversity and potentially creating novel communities. I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing, but the prospect of this kind of management being based primarily off of literary evidence and ecological evidence from other parts of North America does concern me.

My apologies for the length of this writing. I do hope you find some of this interesting.

I hope you all are well,
Joshua
Last edited by JHarkness on Mon Jul 12, 2021 8:45 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Indigenous Land Management & Pre-settlement Forests in Western New England

Post by RayA » Mon Jul 12, 2021 7:25 am

Joshua,

You may already be familiar with it, but Wyatt Oswald (Emerson College), David Foster (Harvard Forest), and others did a study about a year ago (https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2020/01/natural-ecology-in-new-england) in which they concluded that there was virtually no evidence that Native Americans did widespread agriculture and burning in New England.

From the above-mentioned website:

"Paleoecologist W. Wyatt Oswald, first author on the paper and an associate of Harvard Forest, used cores extracted from lake-bottom sediments to reconstruct prevailing patterns of vegetation from about 11,700 years ago, when the last glaciation ended. By analyzing pollen trapped in the sediment, he discovered which plants dominated the landscape; charcoal residues indicated the extent of burning. 'When you actually look at various lines of evidence,' Oswald explained in an interview, 'there is nothing to suggest that there were widespread human impacts on New England landscapes before the arrival of Europeans.' ”

"The research team collected sediment cores from 21 lakes across southern New England. Analysis revealed that pines dominated the landscape until 10,000 years ago. Then, as temperatures increased during the subsequent 2,000 years, oak forests began to appear, and elevated levels of pollen from ragweed and grasses indicate the presence of open land or an open forest structure maintained by fire, a change that was driven by the dry climate. Human populations at this point remained small. When moisture and temperature began increasing some 8,000 years ago, beech and hickory species joined the oaks, while signs of ragweed and grasses declined to almost nothing—indications that a closed-canopy hardwood forest had taken over the landscape, and that there was little fire, despite a burgeoning human population."

From https://harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/news/study-climate-not-humans-shaped-early-forests-new-england :

“Our data show a landscape that was dominated by intact, old-growth forests that were shaped largely by regional climate for thousands of years before European arrival.”

"Fires were uncommon, the study shows, and Native people foraged, hunted, and fished natural resources without actively clearing much land. 'Forest clearance and open grasslands and shrublands only appeared with widespread agriculture during the European colonial period,' says Wyatt Oswald, a professor at Emerson College and lead author of the study, 'within the last few hundred years.' ”

-Ray

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Re: Indigenous Land Management & Pre-settlement Forests in Western New England

Post by JHarkness » Mon Jul 12, 2021 8:38 am

Hi Ray,

Good to hear from you.

Yes, I am aware of the Harvard study, and I think it is pretty compelling. I meant to mention it here but I couldn't remember its name, so thank you for giving me the link. One thing that I think is important to keep in mind about it is that most of their study sites were from the coast of southern New England, which certainly had higher densities of native peoples, and were in sites that naturally had a greater proportion of oaks and hickories (as is reflected in the graphs associated with the study and which Nichols observed in his study); this obviously would have been different this far inland. I would have been especially interested to see more western New England sites included in the study, but it is also interesting that the part of New England most likely to have seen significant alteration has little evidence of it.

There are so many references to burning that I don't see how for the groups living in this area that obtaining natural resources was entirely passive, just not that this occurred on any kind of significant scale. It is also important to remember how low population densities were in this area, and that there was no need to alter significant portions of the landscape when it took away time and energy from more important pursuits.

I think this falls pretty much in line with my thinking that whatever management was occurring was small in scale, particularly the higher you go in elevation.

On the topic of agriculture, specifically, something intriguing to me is the accepted belief that people throughout the southern half of New England practiced and/or relied on it, even the western New England groups. There have been a few archeological digs in the Housatonic Valley, which showed evidence of hunting and fishing, but none of cultivation. One paper noted that one of the village sites, though it had ample access to the Housatonic River (and was occupied during spring fish runs), was very poor for agriculture and from the seasonal camps throughout several towns known to have been used by this group, we can assume that they were not spending much of the year in one place planting and tending crops, but were moving throughout the landscape utilizing existing resources.

Another possibility is that a very low-level of agriculture was being practiced in this area at the time Europeans began to settle here. Facing the pressure of settlers, coastal groups such as the Paugussets, Pequots, and the Wappinger from the Hudson Valley are known to have moved into the area in the 1600s and assimilated with existing groups; it isn't difficult to assume that they brought some aspects of their cultures with them. But again, emphasis needs to be on how minimal this would have been.

Joshua
Last edited by JHarkness on Tue Jul 13, 2021 7:47 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Indigenous Land Management & Pre-settlement Forests in Western New England

Post by dbhguru » Mon Jul 12, 2021 12:04 pm

Joshua and Ray,

Excellent discussion. Much of the banter about indigenous peoples fire-managing the landscape comes from forest managers who seek to justify their more intensive cutting practices. Their arguments are shallow and not fact-based. Nonetheless, the impacts of ancient cultures is a hard puzzle to unravel. Modern archeology is now attributing lots of the stone structures across the northern New England landscape to Native Americans as opposed to Europeans - even Irish monks.

I hope we can keep this discussion going.

Bob
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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Re: Indigenous Land Management & Pre-settlement Forests in Western New England

Post by BeeEnvironment2020 » Mon Jul 12, 2021 12:44 pm

Indeed, this is a very interesting discussion. I do agree with you, Bob, that foresters have been using that logic to justify their very harsh logging practices.

I suppose I can provide some additional information about my state Pennsylvania. A lot of books about the commonwealth's trees and forests from the 1970s and 80s made the claim that, before european settlement, almost the ENTIRE commonwealth of Pennsylvania was essentially clear of understory, and the main forest mainly composed of oaks. My argument has been, and likely continue to be, that starting fires in the humid and wet areas commonly found in SE PA is extremely hard, and certainly would not do enough to clear the understory of all brush, and even if such fires did, it would not for long (the brush would grow back with many tree seedlings within a year). A

So, my point is that I believe the native americans here did not necessarily burn thousands of acres. Sure, they probably did burn a few areas where they wanted to settle or create a town or grow crops, but these areas would not make up what some called, "most" of New England. Other than this, I fully support the claim that more than 95% of Pennsylvania was once covered with Virgin forests before european settlement, not just a dried up forest consisting of oaks and hickories.

BeeE

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Re: Indigenous Land Management & Pre-settlement Forests in Western New England

Post by JHarkness » Mon Jul 12, 2021 8:45 pm

Bob,

I had not thought that the forestry industry would be such a proponent of this idea, though I think you are probably right. However, many of these accounts are far older, and my question has to do with what prompted the writing of these accounts. Were their authors simply exaggerating what they observed in a few places to the whole landscape? Or, perhaps did they simply make it all up? And if so, for what reasons?

Bee,

You bring up an interesting point that I hinted at. Our forests in the northeast are mostly too wet for extensive fires to occur. Even most fires in xeric ridge-top communities are weak (exceptions do occur, at the right time and place). We regularly have small fires here after the snow has melted and before the trees have leafed out (usually caused by careless brush burning), but these rarely spread far, nor do they reach the intensity needed to result in any significant tree mortality.

Just today, I happened across a small burn (from an out-of-control campfire) from a few years ago along the Appalachian Trail near my home. Though the site is certainly one of the most fire-prone places around (an upland red oak forest interspersed with blueberry and huckleberry barrens), this fire did nothing but kill a couple red oaks. The site is too remote for the fire to have been suppressed, but yet it failed to spread. Notably, I observed absolutely no oak regeneration within the burn (rather ericaceous shrubs, paper birch, Lysimachia quadrifolia, Melampyrum lineare, and poverty grass), yet oak regeneration was fairly common throughout the surrounding forest (which is heavily disturbed by wind and naturally has an open canopy).

The whole idea that forests were burned to clear their understory is hardly short of ludicrous. Most forests here are rich in useful understory species, so why would they regularly be destroyed simply to facilitate travel? If you consider the number of berry producing plants that appear following fire, why would anyone have wanted to burn over the site repeatedly as to prevent them (and other useful species) from establishing? I should also point out that we have very few native grasses that would form the kinds of grasslands sometimes described in these accounts.

Joshua

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Re: Indigenous Land Management & Pre-settlement Forests in Western New England

Post by JHarkness » Thu Jul 15, 2021 7:13 am

I'm curious what everyone thinks of the maple vs. oak forest debate in particular.

Oak regeneration is extremely limited in our New England forests today, and that maples (mostly A. saccharum) have increased their presence in the canopy and regeneration layer. However, there is limited data from the 18th and early 19th centuries, meaning we have a very poor picture of what our forests were like then.

Oaks clearly did exceedingly well following the mass agricultural abandonment that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with abundant habitat opened up. Maples have, for the most park, invaded these post-agricultural oak forests (also post-agricultural birch, poplar, and to a lesser extent, pine forests) with the oak canopy shading competition and building leaf litter. Today, high densities of sugar maple regeneration under an oak canopy are typical across western New England, but given the post-agricultural origin of these sites and the limited data on their pre-agricultural states, it cannot be assumed that the sugar maple dominated type is any less 'natural' than the oak dominated type.

Ignoring the fact that most oak forests today occur on sites that once experienced heavy soil disturbance (plowing, grazing, etc.), and can be generally said to have experienced changes in hydrology and edaphic conditions that favor oaks, I'm not convinced that our forests in the Housatonic watershed (and probably extending throughout much of western New England) were either maple or oak dominated.

The Nichols study shows that sugar maple was not a significantly more important canopy component (comprising only 12% of the canopy) than red oak (6%), and though the edaphic conditions of particular sites certainly favor maple dominance (such as rich forests on calcareous bedrock), dominance of one type over a broad region appears unlikely. Not to tie myself too much to the Nichols study, but I think it can pretty generally be applied to the region, based on my observations of surviving old growth sites and long-abandoned charcoal lands. Using this model, hemlock and beech probably were the two most important canopy species in our region, with significant variation in composition between sites (i.e., variation between rich forests, forested wetlands, and xeric ridge and summit communities).

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Re: Indigenous Land Management & Pre-settlement Forests in Western New England

Post by BeeEnvironment2020 » Thu Jul 15, 2021 9:23 am

JHarkness wrote:
Mon Jul 12, 2021 8:45 pm
Bob,

I had not thought that the forestry industry would be such a proponent of this idea, though I think you are probably right. However, many of these accounts are far older, and my question has to do with what prompted the writing of these accounts. Were their authors simply exaggerating what they observed in a few places to the whole landscape? Or, perhaps did they simply make it all up? And if so, for what reasons?

Bee,

You bring up an interesting point that I hinted at. Our forests in the northeast are mostly too wet for extensive fires to occur. Even most fires in xeric ridge-top communities are weak (exceptions do occur, at the right time and place). We regularly have small fires here after the snow has melted and before the trees have leafed out (usually caused by careless brush burning), but these rarely spread far, nor do they reach the intensity needed to result in any significant tree mortality.

Just today, I happened across a small burn (from an out-of-control campfire) from a few years ago along the Appalachian Trail near my home. Though the site is certainly one of the most fire-prone places around (an upland red oak forest interspersed with blueberry and huckleberry barrens), this fire did nothing but kill a couple red oaks. The site is too remote for the fire to have been suppressed, but yet it failed to spread. Notably, I observed absolutely no oak regeneration within the burn (rather ericaceous shrubs, paper birch, Lysimachia quadrifolia, Melampyrum lineare, and poverty grass), yet oak regeneration was fairly common throughout the surrounding forest (which is heavily disturbed by wind and naturally has an open canopy).

The whole idea that forests were burned to clear their understory is hardly short of ludicrous. Most forests here are rich in useful understory species, so why would they regularly be destroyed simply to facilitate travel? If you consider the number of berry producing plants that appear following fire, why would anyone have wanted to burn over the site repeatedly as to prevent them (and other useful species) from establishing? I should also point out that we have very few native grasses that would form the kinds of grasslands sometimes described in these accounts.

Joshua
Yeah, I never really did believe that man-made fires ever were able to completely overtake the forests we so commonly have here on the East (especially here in NE). I do think your point about travel is accurate also. I read in a 1982 book on Pennsylvania that the first settlers supposedly witnessed that the forests were so thin that it looked as if it were a park, and one wagoner could take his wagon and horse and cross the entire county of Chester in a single afternoon with no obstacles. This is obviously false in a few regards, like he would encounter absolutely no obstacles (there are rocks and hills and ledges and valleys, etc...), and that he can travel across the whole county in a day (which is also very false, especially in the 1800s and 1700s).

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Re: Indigenous Land Management & Pre-settlement Forests in Western New England

Post by BeeEnvironment2020 » Thu Jul 15, 2021 9:33 am

JHarkness wrote:
Thu Jul 15, 2021 7:13 am
I'm curious what everyone thinks of the maple vs. oak forest debate in particular.

Oak regeneration is extremely limited in our New England forests today, and that maples (mostly A. saccharum) have increased their presence in the canopy and regeneration layer. However, there is limited data from the 18th and early 19th centuries, meaning we have a very poor picture of what our forests were like then.

Oaks clearly did exceedingly well following the mass agricultural abandonment that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with abundant habitat opened up. Maples have, for the most park, invaded these post-agricultural oak forests (also post-agricultural birch, poplar, and to a lesser extent, pine forests) with the oak canopy shading competition and building leaf litter. Today, high densities of sugar maple regeneration under an oak canopy are typical across western New England, but given the post-agricultural origin of these sites and the limited data on their pre-agricultural states, it cannot be assumed that the sugar maple dominated type is any less 'natural' than the oak dominated type.

Ignoring the fact that most oak forests today occur on sites that once experienced heavy soil disturbance (plowing, grazing, etc.), and can be generally said to have experienced changes in hydrology and edaphic conditions that favor oaks, I'm not convinced that our forests in the Housatonic watershed (and probably extending throughout much of western New England) were either maple or oak dominated.

The Nichols study shows that sugar maple was not a significantly more important canopy component (comprising only 12% of the canopy) than red oak (6%), and though the edaphic conditions of particular sites certainly favor maple dominance (such as rich forests on calcareous bedrock), dominance of one type over a broad region appears unlikely. Not to tie myself too much to the Nichols study, but I think it can pretty generally be applied to the region, based on my observations of surviving old growth sites and long-abandoned charcoal lands. Using this model, hemlock and beech probably were the two most important canopy species in our region, with significant variation in composition between sites (i.e., variation between rich forests, forested wetlands, and xeric ridge and summit communities).
Hi Joshua,

Well, I don't live in New England, but I do have some experience with the forests I have encountered up in the northeast in my travels. I do agree with your conclusion that Hemlock and Beech were likely the canopy-dominant species in NE, and that oak forests do normally develop after severe disturbances to the environment, like farming.
As for Sugar Maple, one of my favorite tree species, I have noticed that they normally are the understory of the forest (obviously), and they normally grow in the cool, moist conditions that NE offers (opposed to the hot and humid weather in the Piedmont area of PA, where I live).

I guess what I am trying to get at is that sugar maples seem to be more of a pioneer species of the forest after deforestation, along with cherries, aspen (I think), and a few other species. However, after the older forest grows back with hemlocks, beech, sugar maples seem to keep their "hold" in the canopy, and slowly (VERY SLOWLY) give away to those species, but probably never fully.

I hope I am making sense :)
BeeE

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Re: Indigenous Land Management & Pre-settlement Forests in Western New England

Post by JHarkness » Mon Jul 19, 2021 10:13 pm

Bee,

Yes, that is essentially what I am trying to say. That sugar maples, though indeed an important part of our old growth forests, have increased following agricultural disturbance. I sometimes think of them as a "second wave" of invading species, replacing the true early successional species, but not necessarily being the 'climax' vegetation type. Theoretically, their importance on these sites would decline as beech, hemlock, and yellow birch increase. However, given that leaf litter can influence soil acidity, the more alkaline conditions in novel maple-dominated forests may not be well-suited for invasion by beech and hemlock, so may remain that way for much longer. This is not to say that natural maple forests don't exist -- they are actually quite common in the limestone areas in the Housatonic watershed. Basically, I see it that sugar maples have increased their presence in western New England (as have oaks).

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