11 Nov 2007, 6:47pm
Cultural Landscapes
by admin

America’s Ancient Forests

Bonnicksen, Thomas M., America’s Ancient Forests–From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery. 2000. John Wiley and Sons.

Review by Mike Dubrasich

Dr. Thomas M. Bonnicksen, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Forest Science and former department head at Texas A&M University, Visiting Scholar at The Forest Foundation, and the author of the greatest book ever written about our forests, America’s Ancient Forests – From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery.

Dr. Bonnicksen holds a bachelor’s degree in forestry, and master’s and doctorate degrees in wild land resource science. He studied under Drs. A. Starker Leopold, Edward C.Stone, and Harold Biswell at UC Berkeley, and later worked with them conducting research and teaching about the history and restoration of historic native forests. Dr. Bonnicksen named the field “restoration forestry.” He has published more than 100 scientific and technical papers, articles, textbook chapters, and other publications, six computer programs and four multimedia CDs.

Dr. Bonnicksen also is a U.S. Navy veteran, former U. S. National Park Service ranger, and in 2002 received the Bush Excellence in Public Service Award for Texas A&M University Faculty for his lifetime work on the protection and restoration of native North American landscapes. The Bush Presidential Library Foundation established the award to annually recognize a Texas A&M faculty member who makes outstanding contributions to public service. From the Texas A&M press release on that occasion:

“What I care about most, after my family and country, is the restoration of America’s native forests and the security and welfare of the people who live and work in them,” Bonnicksen said.

Bonnicksen is a renowned public speaker, published author and legislation writer. His model for decision making provides a basis for strategic planning and insight into the relationship between fire and the structure and dynamics of native forests.

He wrote “America’s Ancient Forests,” published in 2000 by John Wiley & Sons. The book documents the existence of more than 20 North American ancient forests and details how the findings should be a model for maintaining today’s threatened forest lands across the nation…

“I aim at restoring forests’ historic beauty and diversity while maintaining the jobs and economies of local communities in and around them,” he said.

From briefing staff members of the U.S. House of Representatives in testifying before the U.S. Senate Forest and Public Land management Committee on Resources, Bonnicksen continues to serve as a bridge between academic and research endeavors. He has served as the sole expert intervener witness in Federal Court cases affecting all national forests in Texas, and encouraged the practical and useful application of knowledge that led to improved policy developed with active participation of the public.

In America’s Ancient Forests Dr. Bonnicksen discusses all of North America’s forests, their histories, anthropogenic fire, and much, much more, and does it with the style of an accomplished educator and professional writer. His easy, almost chatty cadence belies tremendous experience and scholarship (the bibliography is 75 pages long).

From the Preface of America’s Ancient Forests:

This book ends where most books on forests begin. It sweeps across vast reaches of time and space to tell the story of North America’s forests from the Ice Age to the age of European discovery. It tells how the movement of planets and fluctuations in the sun’s intensity affected the earth’s climate and, in turn, the disassembly and assembly of forests. But this saga is not just about climate and trees. Native Americans were an integral part of America’s forests. The forests and the people who lived there formed an inseparable whole that developed together over millennia. The book describes this relationship and shows how Native Americans helped to create and sustain the ancient forests that Europeans found beautiful enough to set aside in national parks.

Bonnicksen is frequently quoted and cited in the Introductions written by Henry T. Lewis and M. Kat Anderson to Forgotten Fires by Omer Stewart [here]. Indeed, Forgotten Fires begins with this quote:

Native Americans were an integral part of America’s forests. The forests and the people who lived there formed an inseparable whole that developed together over millennia. …Native Americans helped to create and sustain the ancient forests that Europeans found beautiful enough to set aside in national parks. — Thomas M. Bonnicksen, America’s Ancient Forests: from the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery

Lewis and Anderson’s use of Bonnicksen to introduce Omer Stewart was most appropriate because America’s Ancient Forests covers much the same ground as Forgotten Fires. Bonnicksen’s book, written nearly 50 years later, discusses anthropogenic fire and its effects on forests over the entire Holocene. Like Stewart, Bonnicksen proceeds region by region, east to west, in his discussion.

The parallels between the two books are significant. Bonnicksen obviously used Forgotten Fires as a model. But where Stewart touched the surface, Bonnicksen plumbed the depths with detail, specifics, and a scholarly synthesis far surpassing Stewart’s.

Omer Stewart laid the foundation; Tom Bonnicksen built the house. Of course, the latter had an additional 50 years of forest and anthropology studies to use for building materials, but he did an excellent job of it. Bonnicksen stood on Stewart’s shoulders and saw farther in another respect, as well. Bonnicksen understands how and why the lessons of forest history apply to modern forest problems. Learning the history of our forests can help us figure out how to care for them today.

America’s Ancient Forests reveals how anthropogenic fire gave rise to heritage forests that were very different from our modern versions. Bonnicksen also explains how the absence of human tending with stewardship fires has converted open, park-like forests to dense thickets. It is vital to understand that fire suppression policies are only part of the story. The elimination of Indian burning was the principal ecological alteration that has taken place in our forests over the last century, or two, or three.

America’s Ancient Forests
is landmark work, and an leading example of the paradigm shift taking place in forest science today. It is destined to become a classic, and should be read (and enjoyed) by everyone who cares about forests.

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