Native American Impacts on Forests


This 1268th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 12, 2015.


Drive west from Buffalo on Route 5 past Hamburg and you will see off to your left the beginning of the Allegheny Plateau, a stretch of green wooded hillsides. Now turn south and drive up over those hills and you will enter a countryside that is largely forested. Yes, there are farms, but open country is in the minority here.


I thought about that oft-repeated experience as I began to read a formal research paper to be published by the Ecological Society of America. It is by Orchard Park native and recent Ph.D. graduate, Steve Tulowiecki, together with his University at Buffalo geography department advisor, Chris Larsen. The paper title is: "Native American impacts on past forest composition inferred from species distribution models, Chautauqua County, NY."


Stop and think for a few minutes, as I did, about the questions Steve set out to answer. He wanted to know what effects the Native American residents had on the forests of western New York before Europeans reached these lands in the closing years of the 18th century. (Joseph Ellicott's first survey was between 1798 and 1800.) How in the world could Steve say anything about those forests 220 years ago or, to go further, about how they were being modified?


Much to my surprise, he was able to do so with flying colors. He did this by a combination of creative approaches and months transcribing thousands of old land survey records. While it was his good fortune to have Geographic Information System computer software available to support his efforts, he had to provide that system with data and develop appropriate statistical models to make sense of that data.


It turns out that Steve was not the first to explore those times prior to the arrival of Europeans. Archeologists have, for example, examined pollen and soil carbon records to gain insights into Native American activity. But Steve took a different approach. He used the records of the Holland Land Company surveyors to determine the forest makeup. As they proceeded through these forests, Ellicott and the surveyors who worked under his direction recorded not only their location but also the major tree species of the immediate area. These longhand field notes Steve carefully deciphered and entered into his database. This gave him a detailed picture of the Chautauqua forests.


Next he turned to archeological and historical records to locate early villages and trails through this same area. Once he had these records in place he applied his statistical models to determine if there was any relationship between the locations of tree species recorded in the land surveys and proximity to those villages and paths.


In those two paragraphs I have made the process seem much simpler than it was. For example, the concept of nearness for Steve's model is not just distance. Since a walk over flat terrain is easier than an uphill climb, his distance model takes into account changes in terrain.


For the Native Americans the trees of most interest were those that provide mast (nuts and seeds) that they could use for food and that would attract game. Those are the oaks, American chestnut and the hickories. Having those tree species close to where they lived and traveled worked to their advantage.


There are several strategies they could use to enhance their access to those favored trees. They could locate their villages near them. They could plant those species nearby. They could girdle the less desired trees to create more sunlight for those favored. Or they could promote the oak-chestnut-hickory group through fire since those favored species are less affected by fire than, for example, beeches and maples. Fire had the additional advantage of opening the forests for easier travel by consuming underbrush and even creating meadows with both actions attracting game such as deer.


Steve's findings supported his hypothesis that environmental conditions alone do not explain the distribution of trees in those times. Prior to 1800, Native Americans affected the forest environment in which they lived.


Steve Tulowiecki now lives in Caledonia. He commutes from there to teach where he completed his undergraduate program, SUNY Geneseo. He plans to make use of the massive database he has accumulated for additional research.-- Gerry Rising