, Volume 9, Issue 8, pp 1231–1241 | Cite as

Agricultural Legacies in the Great Basin Alter Vegetation Cover, Composition, and Response to Precipitation

  • Andrew J. ElmoreEmail author
  • John F. Mustard
  • Steven P. Hamburg
  • Sara J. Manning


The land-use history of an ecosystem influences current structure and possibly response to modern disturbances and stresses. In semiarid systems the nature of land-use legacies is poorly understood, confounding efforts to establish sustainable management approaches. We compare previously cultivated and non-cultivated lands in Owens Valley, California, where cultivation once extended to 34% of the valley floor but was largely discontinued by 1940, to measure the influence of past disturbance on modern vegetation. We combined historic maps of cultivated and non-cultivated land with an extensive vegetation survey, historic aerial photographs, and satellite measurements of vegetation response to precipitation variability to examine the importance of land-use history in determining the sensitivity of vegetation to annual variations in precipitation. Remote sensing analysis showed that total plant cover on previously cultivated lands was lower and fluctuations in cover were marginally more dependent on precipitation compared with plant cover on non-cultivated lands. We then compared modern plant assemblages within cultivated and non-cultivated land to determine if compositional differences could explain the current patterns of vegetation cover. We found lower species richness on previously cultivated parcels, and higher frequency and cover of perennial grasses on non-cultivated lands. Therefore, we showed differences in land-cover patterns, isolated a mechanism that could account for the differences (species differences), and developed a method for remotely analyzing land regions that have experienced historic anthropogenic disturbance.


land-use legacy Great Basin Owens Valley precipitation variability historic cultivation remote sensing linear spectral mixture analysis 



We thank Lynn Carlson for critical GIS help and expertise; Letty Brown, Jerry Zatorski and Virali Gokaldas for interpreting and digitizing the historic land use maps; Sara Cavin for help with Table 2; and the Inyo County Water Department and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for providing critical data and expertise. We also thank Christine Goodale and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript. Funding is gratefully acknowledged from NASA’s Land-use/Land-cover change program (#NAG5-11145) and the NASA Terrestrial Hydrology Program (#NNG05GB59G). Andrew Elmore was also supported by a Henry Luce Foundation fellowship awarded through Dartmouth College, Environmental Studies Program.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew J. Elmore
    • 1
    • 4
    Email author
  • John F. Mustard
    • 1
  • Steven P. Hamburg
    • 2
  • Sara J. Manning
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Geological ScienceBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA
  2. 2.Center for Environmental StudiesBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA
  3. 3.Inyo County Water DepartmentBishopUSA
  4. 4.Environmental Studies ProgramDartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA

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