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Thoreau's country: a historical–ecological perspective on conservation in the New England landscape

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 Our wood-lots, of course, have a history, and we may often recover it for a hundred years back, though we do not...Yet if we attended more to the history of our lots we should manage them more wisely. H.D. Thoreau. 16 October 1860.

Henry Thoreau, the great New England writer, thinker and naturalist, devoted his ‘career’ to observing, describing and interpreting (in some 2 million words in more than three dozen journal volumes) the natural and cultural characteristics of his nineteenth century landscape. Through these writings we not only learn a great deal about our land and its ancestry but we receive an impassioned, although balanced reverence for both the wild and cultural sides of nature. Thoreau also presents a means of interpreting landscapes based on keen observation, a strong awareness of natural history, and a recognition that insights to modern nature often lie in its past [Foster, D.R. (1999) Thoreau's country. Journey through a transformed landscape. Harvard University Press, Cambridge].

This paper argues that we take Thoreau's words and approach to conservation to heart and admonishes that we appreciate the historical processes driving long-term ecological changes as we attempt to conserve and restore the vegetation, wildlife and landscape of regions including New England. Over the past four centuries much of the eastern USA has been transformed by human activity as the heavily forested area was settled, cut, cleared and farmed through the mid-nineteenth century and then largely abandoned in haphazard fashion from active use and allowed to reforest naturally [Cronon, W. (1983) Changes in the land Indians, colonists and the ecology of New England. Hill and Wang, New York; Whitney, G.G. (1994) From coastal wilderness to fruited plain. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; Foster, D.R. & O'Keefe, J.F. (2000) New England forests through time: insights from the Harvard forest dioramas. Harvard Forest and Harvard University Press, Petersham and Cambridge; Hall, B. et al. (2002) Journal of Biogeography, 29, 1319–1335]. Rather remarkably, the present landscape of New England supports many more natural attributes and processes than at any time since before the American Revolution. As a consequence of its history the region's considerable variation in vegetation, wildlife and appearance is largely explained by the history of human use [Bellemare, J. et al. (2002) Journal of Biogeography, 29, 1401–1420; Gerhardt, F. & Foster, D.R. (2002) Journal of Biogeography, 29, 1421–1437; Hall, B. et al. (2002) Journal of Biogeography, 29, 1319–1335; Eberhardt, R. et al. (2003) Ecological Applications (in press)]. Thus, although the region supports a diverse range of species, plant and animal assemblages, and landscapes, successful conservation strategies need to be based on a broad-scale approach that appreciates regional variation in natural and cultural history as well as current conditions [Foster, D.R. & Motzkin, G. (1998) Northeastern Naturalist, 5, 111; Motzkin, G. & Foster, D.R. (2002) Journal of Biogeography, 29, 1569–1589]. This approach must also work effectively with the general lack of regional planning and regulation and the predominant role of private ownership and control in New England [Berlik, M.M. et al. (2002) Journal of Biogeography, 29, 1557–1568].

When a geographical–historical perspective is adopted for this region, three major, and in many ways quite dissimilar, directions for conservation emerge that are consistent with the region's history and environmental variation, are being actively pursued by conservation organizations and agencies, and might be effectively coordinated on a broad scale today. These directions, as articulated by diverse organizations include: (1) wilderness preservation and the restoration and the conservation of wide-ranging species and broad-scale ecological processes; (2) maintenance of cultural, predominantly agriculturally derived, landscapes; and (3) increased, environmentally sound harvesting and utilization of local forest resources. Individually, when applied in appropriate landscape contexts, each of these approaches can exert positive benefits on biodiversity, environmental processes and quality of life. When applied collectively in a coordinated geographical fashion that acknowledges and accommodates regional variation resulting from physical, biological, cultural and historical factors, these three directions in land management may provide a broad template for proactive conservation that generates local to global benefits.

This paper examines each of these three conservation directions in relation to the region's history and current ecological condition, attempts to articulate the environmental rationale that supports these activities, and then presents an initial approach at positioning each across this varied region.

Keywords: Conservation; New England; biodiversity; cultural landscape; harvesting; history; regional planning; reserves; restoration; sustainability; wildlands

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: October 1, 2002


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