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Impact of Human Activity on Regional Forest Composition and Dynamics in Central New England


Historical and ecological data from north-central Massachusetts suggest that widespread and intensive human disturbance after European settlement led to a shift in forest composition and obscured regional patterns of species abundance. A paleoecological approach was required to place recent forest dynamics in a long-term context. Pollen and charcoal data from 11 small lakes in north-central Massachusetts were used to reconstruct local vegetation dynamics and fire histories across the region over the past 1000 years. The sites are located across an environmental gradient. Paleoecological data indicate that prior to European settlement, there was regional variation in forest composition corresponding to differences in climate, substrate, and fire regime. Oak, chestnut, and hickory were abundant at low elevations, whereas hemlock, beech, sugar maple, and yellow birch were common at high elevations. Fire appears to have been more frequent and/or intense at lower elevations, maintaining high abundances of oak, and archaeological data suggest Native American populations were greater in these areas. A change in forest composition at higher elevations, around 550 years before present, may be related to the Little Ice Age (a period of variable climate), fire, and/or activity by Native Americans, and led to regional convergence in forest composition. After European settlement, forest composition changed markedly in response to human disturbance and there was a sharp increase in rates of vegetation change. Regional patterns were obscured further, leading to homogenization of broad-scale forest composition. There is no indication from the pollen data that forests are returning to pre-European settlement forest composition, and rates of vegetation change remain high, reflecting continuing disturbance on the landscape, despite regional reforestation.

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Received 14 May 1997; accepted 5 August 1997.

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Fuller, J., Foster, D., McLachlan, J. et al. Impact of Human Activity on Regional Forest Composition and Dynamics in Central New England. Ecosystems 1, 76–95 (1998).

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  • Key words: paleoecology; human disturbance; forest dynamics; New England; rates of change.