Rediscovering Roland Harper’s 1927 Provisional Forest Map of Florida

Authors: Don Bragg*, USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station
Topics: History of Geography, Biogeography, Natural Resources
Keywords: longleaf pine, USDA Forest Service, historical forest cover, forest restoration
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 4
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Although today he would be considered a flawed man, Roland Harper was a well-known and prolific botanist who worked for the Geological Survey of Alabama for over 60 years. In the late 1920s, Harper—and other persons knowledgeable about forest types in the southern United States—was contacted by the USDA Forest Service to assist the agency with an effort to map the forest types and approximate compositions at the state level. Harper contributed several state-level maps reflecting his familiarity with the forests of the region. Harper’s “provisional” forest map of Florida, dated January 1927, included twelve distinctive “original” (i.e., pre-Euroamerican settlement) vegetation types, each one painstakingly hand-colored. Much of the Panhandle, for example, was mapped as “open [longleaf] pine forest” with a wiregrass dominated understory; this transitioned into “long-leaf pine flatwoods” with a palmetto understory to the south and east. At this scale, Harper freely admitted this coarse resolution would not capture the “…many variations, intergradations, minor types, and small outlying areas…” present, which would have been missed even if his “…knowledge of the situation was perfect.” Other contemporaries criticized Harper’s biogeographic approach as unscientific. These caveats aside, Harper’s map is a useful approximation of Florida’s historical forests in part because it reflects much less influence from decades of agricultural, residential, commercial, and industrial development seen in comparable contemporary vegetation maps. As such, information from this map can help land managers improve upon reference conditions used to make restoration determinations, based on a trained expert’s opinion from nearly a century ago.

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