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

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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 yrbp, and European land-use activities commencing 260 yrbp. 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.

Keywords: Human disturbance; New England; chestnut; climate change; dendrochronology; fire; hemlock; land use; natural disturbance; oak; palaeoecology

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada 2: Harvard Forest, Harvard University, Petersham, MA, USA and

Publication date: October 1, 2002


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