Old-growth tree stumps tell the story of fire in the upper M

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Old-growth tree stumps tell the story of fire in the upper M

Post by edfrank » Mon Mar 14, 2011 10:17 pm

Old-growth tree stumps tell the story of fire in the upper Midwest
http://news.illinois.edu/news/11/0314fi ... yreas.html

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William McClain, left, a botanist with the Illinois State Museum, with botanist John Ebinger and ecologist Greg Spyreas, both of the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois, looked to tree scars for physical evidence of fires over a period of 226 years in southern Illinois. Bill McClain, left; John Ebinger, Greg Spyreas, right. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

CHAMPAIGN, lll. – Researchers have constructed a 226-year history of fire in southern Illinois by looking at the fire scars in tree stumps. Their study, the most in-depth fire history reported for the upper Midwest, reveals that changes in the frequency of fires dating back to the time of early European settlement permanently altered the ecology of the region.
fire scars.


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The researchers reconstructed the fire history of Hamilton County, Illinois, by examining fire scars and the growth rings of 36 old-growth trees. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

The researchers took advantage of a 1996 timber harvest of old growth post oak trees in Hamilton County.

“I was just amazed at the fire scars in these trees,” said William McClain, a botanist with the Illinois State Museum who led the study with researchers John Ebinger and Greg Spyreas, of the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois. “I knew that the information that was in these tree trunks was really, really valuable.”

McClain counted growth rings, fire scars and other distinguishing features of 36 of the old-growth post oak trees that had been cut. Luckily for the researchers, the fire-damaged trees had repeatedly healed, retaining their heartwood despite having been badly injured by numerous intense fires.
McClain is an expert in the fire history of Illinois and surrounding states, having collected and published accounts of fires from numerous historical records.

“These are written accounts of observed fires that record the date and location of each fire,” he said. “And there are a significant number of Indian-started fires.”

The new study, in the journal Castanea, confirms that the people who lived in Illinois before European settlers arrived were in the habit of setting fires in the region nearly every year, with fires in the Hamilton County woodland occurring at least every two or three years, McClain said. This repeated burning actually stabilized the prairies and open woodlands that dominated the region until the late 19th century, when the fire-suppression efforts of the new settlers allowed different plant species to take over, the researchers said.

The researchers found evidence of more than 100 fires in Hamilton County between the 1770s and 1996, when the trees were cut down. Prior to 1850, the woodlands burned roughly every two years. A “fire-free” interval followed between 1850 and 1885, as settlers rapidly colonized the area and suppressed fires.

Then in 1885, the fire scars appear again, probably as a result of the localized burning of woodlots, which was a tradition in the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the researchers said.

“These smaller, less intense fires were probably started to enhance forage quality for livestock, improve visibility for hunting and to reduce the amount of flammable material in the underbrush,” Spyreas said.

But by that time the previously “open woodlands,” with limited shade and even a few prairie plants growing in the understory had become a dense forest with lots of shade. The shade-intolerant post oaks could not compete with fast-growing, shade-loving species, which until 1850 had been kept in check by the frequent fires.

After the brief period of fire suppression, only established post oaks could survive as other tree species closed in around them; the shade was already too dense for post oak seedlings to survive.

“We used to call these open woodlands ‘barrens,’ ” Ebinger said. “And they were maintained by fires coming through, maybe not every year but at least every third year. Then, 30 years after the fires stopped, the barrens didn’t exist anymore.”

“For hundreds, maybe thousands of years, this was a stable post oak woodland,” Spyreas said. “And then you have a gap of a couple of decades where there were no fires and suddenly the whole system is completely different. It’s amazing how, from Kansas to Ohio, these ecosystems completely depend on fire to be stable.”
The paper, “Fire History of a Post Oak (Quercus stellata Wang.) Woodland in Hamilton County, Illinois,” is available online or from the U. of I. News Bureau.

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"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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Re: Old-growth tree stumps tell the story of fire in the upp

Post by edfrank » Mon Mar 14, 2011 10:20 pm

The Post Oak: Dallas' Heritage Trees
by Phil Erwin

http://dallastrees.blogspot.com/2011/03 ... s+Trees%29


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Post Oak Preserve - Dallas County Post Oak Preserve (Seagoville)
....Today, the post oak woodland is a vanishing part of this city's natural heritage. Development and the growing population has assured that only pockets of post oak stands remain and the lack of management of these lands has allowed them to be overcome by other shade tolerant and invasive plants. A few trees that exceed the age of European settlement in Dallas County remain in isolated sections of the city and sometimes where you would not expect to find them.... (continued)
"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

Joe

Re: Old-growth tree stumps tell the story of fire in the upp

Post by Joe » Tue Mar 15, 2011 12:11 pm

“For hundreds, maybe thousands of years, this was a stable post oak woodland,” Spyreas said. “And then you have a gap of a couple of decades where there were no fires and suddenly the whole system is completely different. It’s amazing how, from Kansas to Ohio, these ecosystems completely depend on fire to be stable.”
Of course- there was a different stable ecosystem before the Indians arrived. What was that like?
Joe

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Re: Old-growth tree stumps tell the story of fire in the upp

Post by edfrank » Tue Mar 15, 2011 12:55 pm

Joe,

I know the Native Americans would burn areas to open them up for crops (at least in the late woodland period 800-1550 AD) once they started to use agriculture and settled for the most part in more permanent settlements. But I really wonder if the burning was on a landscape changing scale? I would think they would burn the same areas near their villages over and over again to keep them cleared rather than burn new and different areas farther from the settlement. The settlements surely did not occupy that large of an area.

“Beginning around AD 1000 in the Ohio Valley, agricultural villages appear in what archaeologists call the Monongahela culture. Initially sites are situated on floodplains, but by AD 1250 they are more often found on upland saddles between hilltops. Houses were usually small, suggesting they were occupied by nuclear families. The houses were arranged in a semicircle or circle around a central plaza. The upland sites were frequently surrounded by a wooden stockade, suggesting that there may have been feuding among villages. By AD 1450, the villages consisted of concentric rings of houses with a large building in the center. Some of the houses had petal-shaped attachments that may have functioned as storage or processing structures (i.e. a smokehouse).“ (PA Historical and Museum Commission, 2011d).

Colonel Brodhead’s report to the commander-in-chief of the Continental armies, made at the conclusion of the 1779 campaign in the upper Allegheny river region, reads in part as follows (Schenck 1887):
“To His Excellency Gen. Washington."
"Pittsburg, Sep'r i6th, 1779.”
But immediately after ascending a high hill we discovered the Allegheny River & a number of Corn Fields, and descending several towns which the Enemy had deserted on the approach of the Troops. Some of them fled just before the advanced Guards reached the Towns and left several packs of Deer skins. At the upper Seneca Towns we found a painted image or War post, clothed in Dog skin, and John Montour told me this town was called Yoghroonwago ; besides this we found seven other Towns, consisting in the whole of one hundred and thirty Houses, some of which were large enough for the accommodation of three or four Indian families. The Troops remained on the ground three whole days destroying the Towns and Corn Fields. I never saw finer Corn altho' it was planted much thicker than is common with our Farmers. The quantity of Corn and other vegetables destroyed at the several Towns, from the best accounts I can collect from the officers employed to destroy it, must certainly exceed five hundred acres which is the lowest estimate, and the plunder taken is estimated at 30 m. Dollars ; I have directed a sale to be made of it for the Troops. On my return I preferred the Venango Road, the old towns of Canawago, Buchloons & Mahusquechikoken, about 20 Miles above Venango on French Creek, consisting of 35 large houses were likewise burnt. The greatest part of the Indian houses were larger than common, and built of square & round logs and frame work. From the great quantity of Corn in new Ground & the'number of new houses Built and Building it appears that the whole Seneca & Muncy nations intended to collect to this settlement which extends about eight Miles on the Allegheny River, between one hundred and seventy and two hundred miles from hence. The River at the upper Towns is little if any larger than Kiskamanitis Creek. It is remarkable that neither man nor Beast has fallen into the Enemies hands on this expedition, & I have a happy presage that the counties of Westmoreland, Bedford & Northumberland, if not the whole western Frontiers will experience the good effect of it…“

The above is an actual account of villages along the river in 1779. Their populations at this time were swelled by refugees from further east displaced by white settlers and towns. Even then the cleared fields were limited to the immediate area surrounding the village with large tracts of untouched woodland in between. Ruffner and Abrams (2002) write ""We learned of a 426 year old stand of white oaks immediately adjacent to the Seneca Iroquois village site at Buckaloons, along the upper Allegheny River in northwestern Pennsylvania. This small stand (2.5 ha) of old trees presented a rare opportunity to document the disturbance history of a Native American site using dendrochronological methods… Because the old-growth remnant is so small (2.5 ha) with just a few trees spanning the last 400 years of the site, only a reconstruction of the stands disturbance history was attempted via radial growth analysis." Adjacent to the actual village there were trees that are 400 years old indicating that this area was not completely cleared or subject to fire for 170 or so years prior to Brodhead razing the village.

I acknowledge they did burn areas to establish farming areas, perhaps some to manage game for hunting, but I really doubt that the practice changed the structure of the forest across the landscape.

Ruffner suggests that the northward expansion of some of the oak dominated forests in the area may be a result of manipulation by native American to promote agriculture. They also suggest the natives were starting low intensity fires to clear the understory of hickory, chestnut, and oak forests to try to improve the nut harvests in the region. At the Buckaloons site there is a somewhat ambiguous disturbance "cycles" that the authors interpret as a 20 -30 year burn cycle. The burn cycle interpretation at other sites was the PhD dissertation theme for Ruffner (1999) so I would expect him to find them in the data here and they did. But there is still a big question on the scale of the fires that were set.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. 2011d. Late Prehistoric Period in the Ohio River Valley. http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/se ... iod/406830 accessed January 17, 2011.

Schenck, J. S. 1887. History of Warren County, Pennsylvania. D. Mason & Co., Syracuse, NY. 910 pp.

Ruffner, Charles and Abrams, Marc. 2002. Dendrochronological investigations of disturbance history for a native American site in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 129(3), 2002, pp. 251-260.

Ed
"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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