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Biological Evidence for Native Burning

There is ample biological evidence to corroborate written historical records by early Europeans that describe the disturbed southeastern landscapes and American Indian's widespread use of fire. The unambiguous dominance of oak, pine, and hickory in the pollen record for thousands of years confirms the presence of uninterrupted fire-disturbed forest ecosystems in the Southeast. Fralish and others (1991) compared the characteristics of presettlement forests to existing old growth forest remnants in the same area using witness trees of an 1806-07 land survey in the Southeast. He found that trees in presettlement forests were more widely spaced and were of larger diameter than trees in existing old growth stands. On dry ridgetops, presettlement trees were shorter with wider crowns, whereas existing old growth trees are taller with smaller crowns due to crowding. Oak and hickory dominated presettlement forests; they are being succeeded by mesic shade-tolerant species in existing old growth. Fire-sensitive redcedar is more prevalent in existing old growth than it was in presettlement forests. This study supports the premise of fire-disturbed presettlement forests dominated by oak and hickory or pines on an open landscape of more widely spaced trees.

The vast longleaf pine ecosystem throughout the southeastern Coastal Plain furnishes additional support for the premise of widespread use of frequent fire by southeastern natives. The longleaf pine ecosystem ranged from Virginia's southeastern Coastal Plain across the eastern and Gulf Coastal Plains to eastern Texas (Landers and others 1995). This ecosystem was distinguished by widely spaced trees, which created an open, park-like pine barren (fig. 24.16). The large expanse of the longleaf pine ecosystem was composed of even-aged and multi-aged mosaics of forest, woodland, and savanna, with a diverse, low ground cover dominated by bunch grasses. Understory hardwoods and shrubs occupied wet areas that did not burn frequently. Longleaf pine is the key tree species in this complex, fire-dependent ecosystem. Without frequent fire, other species slowly dominate these stands (Landers and others 1995). This ecosystem originated after 9,500 years BP as a result of native burning, which created an ecosystem that also encouraged natural lightening fires, due to the nature of the vegetation community.

Species diversity in these savannas is the highest reported in North America (Westhoff 1983). Burned areas contain seven times more plants valuable to wildlife than unburned area. Fire in these ecosystems substantially increases protein content, nutrients, and palatability of forage (Komarek 1983). Longleaf pine seeds are also an excellent wildlife food. It is not difficult to understand the motivations for developing these prime ecosystems for food procurement.

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content: Wayne D. Carroll
webmaster: John M. Pye

created: 4-OCT-2002
modified: 08-Dec-2013