Forest restoration would be a lot easier if people who lived a couple of centuries ago could just tell us about the forest as they knew it.
For Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy, a U.S. Forest Service scientist, using original land deeds from colonial America is as close as you can get to actually being there. Based in Parsons, W.Va., Thomas-Van Gundy is using a unique digitized dataset built with original land deeds to determine what a West Virginia forest looked like before European settlement.
Two hundred years ago, “metes and bounds” surveys used distances from trees, posts, rock piles or natural features to describe corners where property line directions changed. Trees were used as markers for the corners of a parcel, and these descriptions were included in deeds.
“At the time, these trees ‘witnessed’ corners,” says Thomas-Van Gundy. “Today they are telling us even more.”
The use of old deeds is not a new technique in forest research, but Thomas-Van Gundy based her study of what is today the Monongahela National Forest on a larger number of points than has been used previously and used a different approach in analyzing the data.
“We already had a general idea of what species existed prior to European settlement,” she said. “Our purpose with this study was to uncover greater detail of the early forest – basically what species would you find where in this very diverse forest.”
As researchers expected, species composition before European settlement and development varied by ecological subsection. Overall, white oak was the most common species across the study area, with the next most abundant species across the study area being sugar maple, American beech, American chestnut, and chestnut oak.
In addition to bringing pre-settlement forests into better focus, the study also yielded a small detail on the surveyors themselves: Colonial Americans really knew their trees.
“In the surveys we used in this study, it’s clear that the surveyors had broad knowledge of the common trees in this forest,” Thomas-Van Gundy said. “They used a wide range of trees as witness trees and identified many of them to species.”