13 Feb 2010, 11:34am
Forestry education Saving Forests
by admin

Zybach On Alseya

We have presented some important works of Anthropogenic Ecology, the study of historical human influences on the environment, in the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: History of Western Landscapes. Today we are pleased to present another seminal work in AE, The Alseya Valley Prairie Complex, ca. 1850: Native Landscapes in Western GLO Surveys by Dr. Bob Zybach [here].

The Alsea [the common spelling, but Alseya is more euphoniously accurate] Valley lies in the Coast Range between Corvallis in the Willamette Valley and Waldport on the Pacific Ocean. The name of the valley refers to the Alsi, or Alseyah, or Alciyeh Indians that were resident there for 4,000 years or more prior to fatal contact with European diseases. The Alseya prairie complex refers to the culturally-modified landscape tended and cared for by the Alseya people over those millennia.

Today Alsea is a typical Oregon rural community, a small town center with rural homes, farms, fields and pastures, and a thick Douglas-fir forest blanketing the hills. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Alsea Valley has been thus for thousands of years, with the exception of the Douglas-fir thicket.

Over past few dozen centuries, the Alseya Valley has been a bustling community with fields and roads, much like today. The Alsi people were traders and merchants, as well as farmers. Their landscape was modified by anthropogenic fire which served to create and maintain an anthropogenic mosaic, a landscape that served the needs of the residents far better than dense forest.

Evidence indicates that in the 1850s, the time of initial White settlement in the area, the Alseya Valley existed as a series of prairies, brakes, balds, openings, patches and meadows connected by a network of foot trails, horse trails, and canoe routes, and bounded by stands of even-aged forest trees, burns, seedlings and saplings. This condition has been described as “yards, corridors, and mosaics” (Lewis and Ferguson 1999). Lewis and Ferguson initially used the phrase to describe a cultural landscape pattern maintained by Native people who lived in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, but determined that similar management patterns were also used by people in the conifer forests of the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, northwest California, western Washington, Australia, and Tasmania (Lewis and Ferguson 1999:164-178). These researchers found that in each instance, fire was the tool most commonly used to establish and maintain grasslands and other openings (“fire yards”), bounded by stands of trees and open transportation routes (“fire corridors”). Fire was also the agent that entered unmanaged forested areas, whether by human cause or lightning, and caused burns that regenerated to a shifting mosaic of evenaged stands of seedlings, saplings, and trees (Lewis and Ferguson 1999:164-165).

Bob Zybach is one of the leading researchers in historical landscape geography in the Pacific Northwest. His insights are hard-won. Bob has lived in the area his entire life and worked in the woods since he was old enough to swing a hoedad. After 20 years of leading a reforestation company, he returned to school and earned a MS and Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences with emphasis on the history of people and fire in the landscape.

In an interview in Evergreen Magazine in 1994, editor Jim Petersen asked (then Mr.) Zybach how government scientists could have missed so much about the history of western forests and landscapes. Bob replied, “I can’t speak for the government’s scientists. I have a library card.”

His witty “humility” notwithstanding, (now Dr.) Bob Zybach’s exhaustive scholarship has opened the door to a vast new field of research in the PNW: watershed-by-watershed analysis of the history of humans in the environment. That history goes back thousands of years, to the earliest known camas ovens circa 6,000 years ago, and further.

I first met Bob when he was a leader in the reforestation industry in the late 1970’s. Our paths crossed again in the early 1990’s at Oregon State University. Although our respective research was ostensibly in separate fields (his was forest history, mine was stand development and forest biometrics), our findings were the same: human beings had had a profound impact on forests for millennia, and the implications were equally profound for modern forest stewardship.

Since then Dr. Zybach has continued his indefatigable scholarship and research into forest and landscape history, and he is widely recognized today as THE expert in that subject in the Pacific Northwest.

The methodology he used in The Alseya Valley Prairie Complex was examination and analysis of old (1800’s) surveys and mapping. While he did not pioneer that method, he popularized it. His work in recording oral histories, GIS, catastrophic fire, and ethno-ecology are also being followed today, more and more, as the fascinating and important work of landscape history is growing ever more popular. Bob is a pathfinder, literally and figuratively.

The presence of civilized humanity over millennia had impact upon the vegetation of Oregon’s Coast Range (and most of the rest of the continent as well). Most of our forests of today are not virgin, or pristine, or even very old. The land is old, the connection of people to the land is old, and some of the trees are old, too, but the forests are not. The land used to be covered by prairie and savanna, not thick forest. That is Dr. Zybach’s principal finding, and one well-supported with empirical evidence collected by a growing body of researchers.

There is a renaissance happening today in forest science, historical landscape geography, and traditional ecological knowledge. Bob is a modern day DaVinci in that respect, multi-talented and with uncanny perception.

The renaissance is revealing that the ancient human connection is the real antiquity to be found in our landscapes. People caring for the land is the thing that has been going on for millennia. Humanity and the historic human touch are the real treasures hidden in the valleys and mountains of this long-loved region.



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