Examining the heritage and legacy of Indigenous land management in oak and pine forests of northeastern United States

Marc D Abrams, Gregory J Nowacki


Abstract.—This review paper examines the role of Indigenous people (Native American Indians) land-use and climate in the historical development of  Quercus (oak) and Pinus (pine) forests of northeastern United States and changes associated with European settlement (circa 1600). Prior to European settlement vast areas forests in coastal areas of the northeastern U.S. were dominated by oak and pine species. Evidence of periodic understory fire in the historical development of oak and pine forests and the role of Indigenous agriculture has been debated by paleoecologists and fire-scar dendroecologists. As European populations rapidly expanded during the 18th Century onward, much of the northeastern U.S. was impacted by extensive timber harvesting, land clearing, and severe fires. However, the westward movement of Europeans into the fertile Midwest during the 19th Century led to farm displacement and land abandonment in the Northeast. Starting in the 20th Century, a variety of ecological phenomena set in, including old field succession, chestnut blight,  fire suppression, intensive deer browsing, and urbanization, resulting in dramatic changes in forest composition and the extent of open lands. These trends has culminated in recruitment failures of most oak and pine species on all but the most xeric sites. Instead, late successional mesic hardwoods such as Acer (maple) and Fagus (beech) are aggressively replacing oak and pine in a process known as mesophication. The leaf litter and woody debris of these replacement species are less flammable and more rapidly mineralized than that of the upland oak and pine, further suppressing fire. The trend toward increases in non-oak tree species will continue in fire-suppressed forests, rendering them less combustible for forest managers who wish to restore vital historic fires regimes. We conclude that the most profound changes in forest composition during the late Holocene were due to human land-use rather than climate change.


Native Americans, fire, land-use, paleoecology, anthropology


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