Oak, chestnut and fire: climatic and cultural controls of long‐term forest dynamics in New England, USA

Oak, chestnut and fire: climatic and cultural controls of long‐term forest dynamics in New... Aim Despite decades of study we have limited insights into the nature of the pre‐European landscape of the north‐eastern USA and the forces and changes that shaped modern forest patterns. Information on such long‐term forest dynamics would provide critical insights into the relationships among environmental change, land‐use history and biotic responses and is greatly needed for conservation planning. To address these issues we used modern, historical, and palaeoecological approaches to reconstruct the 3500‐year history of a New England upland region dominated by oak and (formerly) chestnut forests and to interpret the interactions among climate change, natural and human disturbance, and site factors in controlling vegetation patterns and dynamics at different spatial scales. Location The study focused on a broad upland ridge dominated by oak forests in the north‐central Massachusetts town of New Salem. Detailed palaeoecological analyses were undertaken of wetland (Chamberlain Swamp) and lake (Lily Pond) basins in order to reconstruct local to regional scale vegetation dynamics, which were interpreted within the context of regional vegetation data from central Massachusetts. Methods Palaeoecological methods were used to reconstruct the vegetation, fire and land‐use history of the local and subregional vegetation from the two basins and to place these in the context of regional information on vegetation and climate change based on other published data. Historical information including maps, archaeological and census data, and vegetation information were gathered for the landscape and areas surrounding the coring sites. Vegetation sampling in transects adjacent to the swamp coring area included tree cores for dendrochronological reconstructions. Results Stand, landscape and regional forest dynamics were most strongly driven by climate, notably an apparent cooling and increase in moisture availability c. 1500 yr bp, and European land‐use activities commencing 260 yr bp. However, the abundance of oak and chestnut (fire‐tolerant, sprouting species) and the distribution of hemlock (fire‐intolerant) at a stand to landscape scale were also influenced by fire, which, in turn, varied with climate and human activity. Despite, or perhaps as a consequence of ongoing disturbance by fire and presumably windstorms in this hurricane‐prone region, the pre‐European period was marked by two 1000+ year periods of remarkably stable forest composition, separated by an abrupt compositional shift. In contrast, over the past 260 years the vegetation has changed rather continuously in response to human activity, producing stand, landscape and regional patterns that are novel as well as recent in origin. The results indicate that chestnut was a major component of some pre‐European landscapes in New England, in part because of occasional fire, and that cultural and physical factors have interacted over millennia to control vegetation patterns and dynamics. Our analyses also suggest that the composition of low diversity forests can be remarkably stable over millennia. The range of ecological, cultural and management insights afforded by this study underscores the fundamental utility of very long‐term research in science and policy development. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of Biogeography Wiley

Oak, chestnut and fire: climatic and cultural controls of long‐term forest dynamics in New England, USA

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Publisher
Wiley
Copyright
Copyright © 2002 Wiley Subscription Services, Inc., A Wiley Company
ISSN
0305-0270
eISSN
1365-2699
D.O.I.
10.1046/j.1365-2699.2002.00760.x
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Aim Despite decades of study we have limited insights into the nature of the pre‐European landscape of the north‐eastern USA and the forces and changes that shaped modern forest patterns. Information on such long‐term forest dynamics would provide critical insights into the relationships among environmental change, land‐use history and biotic responses and is greatly needed for conservation planning. To address these issues we used modern, historical, and palaeoecological approaches to reconstruct the 3500‐year history of a New England upland region dominated by oak and (formerly) chestnut forests and to interpret the interactions among climate change, natural and human disturbance, and site factors in controlling vegetation patterns and dynamics at different spatial scales. Location The study focused on a broad upland ridge dominated by oak forests in the north‐central Massachusetts town of New Salem. Detailed palaeoecological analyses were undertaken of wetland (Chamberlain Swamp) and lake (Lily Pond) basins in order to reconstruct local to regional scale vegetation dynamics, which were interpreted within the context of regional vegetation data from central Massachusetts. Methods Palaeoecological methods were used to reconstruct the vegetation, fire and land‐use history of the local and subregional vegetation from the two basins and to place these in the context of regional information on vegetation and climate change based on other published data. Historical information including maps, archaeological and census data, and vegetation information were gathered for the landscape and areas surrounding the coring sites. Vegetation sampling in transects adjacent to the swamp coring area included tree cores for dendrochronological reconstructions. Results Stand, landscape and regional forest dynamics were most strongly driven by climate, notably an apparent cooling and increase in moisture availability c. 1500 yr bp, and European land‐use activities commencing 260 yr bp. However, the abundance of oak and chestnut (fire‐tolerant, sprouting species) and the distribution of hemlock (fire‐intolerant) at a stand to landscape scale were also influenced by fire, which, in turn, varied with climate and human activity. Despite, or perhaps as a consequence of ongoing disturbance by fire and presumably windstorms in this hurricane‐prone region, the pre‐European period was marked by two 1000+ year periods of remarkably stable forest composition, separated by an abrupt compositional shift. In contrast, over the past 260 years the vegetation has changed rather continuously in response to human activity, producing stand, landscape and regional patterns that are novel as well as recent in origin. The results indicate that chestnut was a major component of some pre‐European landscapes in New England, in part because of occasional fire, and that cultural and physical factors have interacted over millennia to control vegetation patterns and dynamics. Our analyses also suggest that the composition of low diversity forests can be remarkably stable over millennia. The range of ecological, cultural and management insights afforded by this study underscores the fundamental utility of very long‐term research in science and policy development.

Journal

Journal of BiogeographyWiley

Published: Oct 1, 2002

References

  • Effects of land use, climate variation and N deposition on N cycling and C storage in northern hardwood forests
    Aber, Aber; Driscoll, Driscoll
  • The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources
    Berlik, Berlik; Kittredge, Kittredge; Foster, Foster
  • The forests of presettlement New England, USA: spatial and compositional patterns based on town proprietor surveys
    Cogbill, Cogbill; Burk, Burk; Motzkin, Motzkin
  • Conservation of changing landscapes: vegetation and land‐use history of Cape Cod National Seashore
    Eberhardt, Eberhardt; Foster, Foster; Motzkin, Motzkin; Hall, Hall
  • Cultural, environmental and historical controls of vegetation patterns and the modern conservation setting on the island of Martha's Vineyard, USA
    Foster, Foster; Hall, Hall; Barry, Barry; Clayden, Clayden; Parshall, Parshall
  • Wildlife dynamics in the changing New England Landscape
    Foster, Foster; Motzkin, Motzkin; Bernardos, Bernardos; Cardoza, Cardoza
  • Three hundred years of forest and land‐use change in Massachusetts, USA
    Hall, Hall; Motzkin, Motzkin; Foster, Foster; Syfert, Syfert; Burk, Burk
  • Dynamics of soil nitrogen and carbon for 61 years after agricultural abandonment
    Knops, Knops; Tilman, Tilman
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  • Vegetation patterns in heterogeneous landscapes: the importance of history and environment
    Motzkin, Motzkin; Wilson, Wilson; Foster, Foster; Allen, Allen

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