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Forest management is an ancient thing in Pennsylvania, says new study

PennLive.com logo PennLive.com 6/16/2021 Marcus Schneck, pennlive.com

Native Americans “were carefully and extensively managing local forest communities with fire” long before Europeans arrived in the New World and even longer before the term “forest management” was coined, according to new research by a pair of Pennsylvania archeologists.

Katherine Peresolak, archaeological field director with McCormick Taylor Inc. in Harrisburg, and Joe Baker, retired archeologist with the Pennsylvania departments of transportation and conservation and natural resources, looked at a variety of log buildings in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia along with wooden canal locks, old barns and tree stumps in the state to get a glimpse into how indigenous people and early settlers managed the forests.

“We concluded that native people in what’s now Pennsylvania were carefully and extensively managing local forest communities with fire,” they wrote in a recent blog post on the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation website.

“Among the forest types they seem to have perpetuated were oak forests which produce valuable acorn mast that sustains game species, and hard pine communities in dry and sandy habitats that were also economically valuable to pre-Colonial populations as hunting areas. There is also some suggestion that regular burning and the intensive grazing on young emergent plants that followed the fires created more open forest habitats that facilitated movement and travel.

“The earliest data we have for this practice extends to the 16th century, but sampling and identification of charcoal from older archaeological contexts might be able to tell us when this practice began and how it evolved. It was these managed aboriginal forest communities that the first Colonial settlers encountered when they arrived, and Colonial and later land use practices altered those forests substantially.”

Peresolak and Baker employed dendrochronology – the science of dating events, environmental change, and archaeological artifacts using the growth rings of trees – to examine past landscape impacts.

Their results dispel the image that a lot of visitors to wild lands in Pennsylvania imagine of themselves walking in forest primeval, a place untouched by human hands.  The picture that is emerging is one of forest communities deeply reflective of their relationship with humanity in surprising and nuanced ways for centuries before the arrival of European colonists.

Contact Marcus Schneck at mschneck@pennlive.com.

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