Cultural, environmental and historical controls of vegetation patterns and the modern conservation setting on the island of Martha's Vineyard, USA
Long-term studies of landscape dynamics in relationship to changes in cultural, environmental and disturbance factors have great potential for increasing the understanding of modern ecological conditions and improving the development of conservation plans that incorporate historically important processes. In this study we compiled archaeological, historical, palaeoecological and ecological information on Martha's Vineyard to investigate temporal and spatial variation in landscape pattern and process. Although <250 km2, this island off the Massachusetts coast embraces remarkable geographical variation and harbours uncommon plant and animal assemblages that make it a national priority for conservation. Location
The study embraces the entire island of Martha's Vineyard, which lies c. 8 km south of Cape Cod and the mainland of Massachusetts. The triangular-shaped island contains three major geomorphological regions: moraine forms a series of irregular and subparallel ridges and hills 40 to over 80 m in elevation that terminate at the western end of the island in high cliffs at Gay Head and Squibnocket; sandy glacial outwash overlying moraine spreads down the northeastern end of the island forming a region of low undulating hills and shallow depressions 15–30 m in elevation, and an extensive outwash plain stretches across the central and eastern part of the island and slopes gently from 30-m elevation in the north to <3 m towards the southern coast where it is dissected by a series of north–south trending valleys that terminate in coastal ponds. In all areas except the southwest corner the island is underlain by >100 m of Quaternary and coastal plain sediments. Methods
Long-term records of vegetation, fire, natural disturbance and human activity were compiled over the past 2000 years and across the physiographic variation on the island. Palaeoecological interpretations of vegetation, fire, climate and land-use history are based on a series of eleven stratigraphies from ponds, lakes and wetlands; archaeological data were compiled from recent surveys; historical data were assembled from census and town records, fire records, aerial photographs and cartographic series; and ecological information was derived from forestry and conservation surveys and field sampling of vegetation, soils and site characteristics. Extensive use was made of geographical information systems and multivariate statistical analyses. Results
Spatial patterns in vegetation over the past 2000 years have varied strongly with soils and physiography, which are also associated with major differences in fire and land-use history. Mesic hardwood forests that seldom burned occupy the western moraine, open oak-pine and hardwood forests occur on the frequently burned and dissected outwash plain along the south coast, and pine-oak forests cover the central outwash plain, which extends across much of the island and displays among the highest charcoal values in New England. Although a relatively large Native American population may have been an important source of fire ignitions there is no palynological or archaeological evidence that this culture cleared substantial areas or directly altered the extent of forest cover. Shifts in forest composition and fire were associated with regional climate change during the pre-European period, whereas pronounced changes in forest cover and the development of extensive open-land areas of grassland, shrubland and heathland were driven by European land use.
The contrasting characteristics, land-use histories and ownerships of different regions of the island yield contrasting conservation priorities and management directions. The mesic morainal forests have changed modestly in composition during the historical period and can effectively support a distinct woodland flora if adequately protected. The large outwash plain is broken by non-native plantations but could yield an effective landscape mosaic of oak and pine forests interrupted by extensive scrub oak barrens that could be maintained through prescribed fire or cutting. In contrast, the south shore grasslands and shrublands are the product of intensive agricultural land use. These habitats and their unusual suite of plants and animals require traditional land-use practices, or their substitutes, in order to reverse the ongoing increase in woody species and to maintain these cultural landscapes. Main Conclusion
The biotic, edaphic, disturbance and historical diversity across this relatively small landscape is remarkable and yet poses many challenges to interpretation and conservation. The modern landscape can only be understood through knowledge of its long-term past and can be best managed in the context of the natural and cultural factors that have shaped it through time.
Document Type: Research Article
Publication date: October 1, 2002