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Ecology and Conservation in the Cultural Landscape of New England: Lessons from Nature's History

David R. Foster and Glenn Motzkin
Northeastern Naturalist
Vol. 5, No. 2 (1998), pp. 111-126
Published by: Eagle Hill Institute
DOI: 10.2307/3858582
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3858582
Page Count: 16
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Ecology and Conservation in the Cultural Landscape of New England: Lessons from Nature's History
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Abstract

As a result of historical and current human impacts on natural ecosystems worldwide, most modern landscapes involve an element of cultural influence. In New England, for example, although the landscape was largely forested prior to European settlement, it was highly dynamic in response to changing climatic conditions, natural disturbance processes, and American Indian activities. European settlement in the 17th and 18th centuries initiated a dramatic transformation, as much of the land was deforested and farmed and the remainder was logged, grazed or burned. Since the mid 19th century, agriculture and forest use have declined, forest area and age have increased, and the land has become more natural than at any time in the preceeding centuries. However, despite the natural appearance of many portions of the modern landscape, a legacy of intensive past use remains in vegetation structure and composition, landscape patterns, and ongoing dynamics. Consequently, an understanding of the history of human influence should be an integral part of ecological study and a critical component of conservation planning and resource management. A major lesson that emerges from historical perspectives is the recognition that there are no static baseline conditions that can be used for experimental control or decision-making. Rather, change is an inherent characteristic of all landscapes and future change is inevitable. Although ecological research can provide insights into the historical and environmental factors that underlie current conditions and that may determine future changes, it does not provide unequivocal guidelines for policy decisions, for these are inherently subjective in nature. The current changes in wildlife populations across the eastern United States, notably an increase in forest interior species and a decline in open-habitat species, underscores the dynamics as well as the policy dilemmas inherent in landscapes that have been strongly modified by human activities. Recent increases in species such as moose, beaver, and bear and a corresponding decline in open-habitat species such as meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows may be largely understood as a consequence of historical changes in land cover. These dramatic changes pose ethical dilemmas as some native species threaten human property or health, while considerable effort and management may be required to maintain the flora and fauna as well as the conservation and aesthetic values associated with cultural landscapes. Historical perspectives increase our understanding of the dynamic nature of the landscape, the long-term influence of humans as components of functioning ecosystems, and the cultural basis for our conservation decisions.

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