12 Mar 2009, 12:58pm
Saving Forests
by admin

Wilderness - What Wilderness?

Historical human influences on the environment have been significant and widespread throughout North and South America for thousands of years. Landscapes that are thought of as “wilderness” or “natural” have in fact been subject to extensive and intensive human alteration and (dare we say it) stewardship for millennia.

Three scientific research papers newly posted in the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: History of Western Landscapes demonstrate the extent of human impact on the West Coast.

Evaluating the Purpose, Extent, and Ecological Restoration Applications of Indigenous Burning Practices in Southwestern Washington by Linda Storm and Daniela Shebitz [here] reports on studies of ancient camas prairies in the Upper Chehalis River basin of Washington State.

[I]ndigenous peoples contributed to the long-term maintenance and distribution of prairie and savanna ecosystems in pre-European western Washington through traditional management techniques, such as burning…

The human history of western Washington extends back at least 10,000 years (Ames and Maschner 1999) with sedentary village life beginning after 3,800 years ago. Human populations increased as plank house village sites were established, salmon harvest intensified, and winter storage developed in some locales after this period. Some researchers postulate that during this period inland, up-river groups of indigenous peoples in southwestern Washington began using fire to maintain prairie and savanna habitats and subsequently increased their production and storage of important plant food resources…

The implications are that restoration of ecosystems requires an understanding of historical human influences and a re-application of those influences. Without anthropogenic tending of the land, ecological transformations lead to degradation of whole ecosystems. Land set-aside and abandonment of human stewardship can destroy ecosystems, or at least squander and debilitate primary ecological and historical values.

Environmentally biased fragmentation of oak savanna habitat on southeastern Vancouver Island, Canada by Mark Vellend, Anne D. Bjorkman, and Alan McConchie [here] discusses ancient oak savanna on Vancouver Island.

In an area thought of as northern coast coniferous forest there were once extensive oak savannas and prairies. How did that happen?

It appears that fire management by indigenous peoples maintained oak savannas historically across large areas of flat low-lying conditions with deep soils, where succession otherwise produces closed coniferous forest.

The implication?

[T]he role of indigenous cultural practices in shaping the landscape of southeastern Vancouver Island (Turner, 1999; MacDougall et al., 2004), and indeed many landscapes around the world (Denevan, 1992; Gomez-Pompa and Kaus, 1992), needs to be explicitly recognized in prioritization schemes for habitat conservation and restoration.

Reconstructing Historic Ecotones Using the Public Land Survey: The Lost Prairies of Redwood National Park by Joy A. Fritschle [here] evaluates “bald” prairies and oak woodlands in Redwood National Park.

In an area thought of as towering evergreen forest, it turns out that historically there were extensive prairies with no trees at all and savannas with scattered oak trees. Today those areas are being invaded by conifers, principally Douglas-fir.

Why is that? Is it because the climate has changed and now Douglas-fir can grow where it couldn’t before? Hardly!!!! Douglas-fir grows from Southern California to Alaska, from the coast to the Rocky Mountains. The species has a huge ecological range.

No, Douglas-fir was excluded for millennia by anthropogenic (deliberate, intentional human-set) fire.

Native Americans in Redwood Creek depended on regular, low-intensity ground fires to manage the prairies and oak woodlands for hunting and gathering activities (West 1983; Underwood, Arguello, and Siefkin 2003). The prairies were maintained as fire yards, intentionally burned open areas that increased the abundance and diversity of plant and animal resources (Lewis 1993; Underwood, Arguello, and Siefkin 2003).

Today the National Park Service is concerned with ecological restoration. They recognize that Redwood NP is NOT a wilderness, has not been a wilderness for thousands of years, and that abandoning the landscape to “natural” influences will destroy the very values the Park was created to protect.

Historical analysis is essential to achieve restoration goals. Note that restoration is not exact recapitulation of history, but rather is informed by history to reinstate historical ecological development pathways.

Recovery of an ecosystem does not mean the re-creation of an ecosystem to a particular point in history. Rather, it entails a return to the historical or evolutionary trajectory: states in which the ecosystem is structurally and functionally sustainable when subjected to the normal ranges of disturbance and stress (SER 2002). Reaching the desired trajectory requires a thorough knowledge of the current and historical ecology of a site (Moore, Covington, and Fule 1999; SER 2002; Egan and Howell 2005).

Sound restoration planning and evaluation relies on the identification of reference conditions along the trajectory. These reference conditions, or reference ecosystems, involve historical accounts of the ecosystem prior to degradation, and, when available, analyses of contemporary analogous ecosystems that have not been significantly degraded (SER 2002; Egan and Howell 2005). The reconstruction of historic landscapes is critical to the identification and application of reference ecosystems in ecological restoration.

If we abandon millions upon millions of acres to “wilderness,” we will lose much. Instead, we need to study the history of our landscapes and learn from those studies. Then we need to implement informed restoration forestry in order to protect, maintain, and perpetuate forests, savannas, and prairies.

The land has been stewarded for thousands of years. It is our responsibility to honor that heritage by taking care of our landscapes. Instead of allowing catastrophic fires to create scorched earth wastelands, we need to tend this Earth, and leave future generations a legacy they will appreciate and honor.



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