Historical Vegetation-Environment Relationships and Implications for Management in the Midwest, United States

Authors: Kyle McAvoy*, University of Notre Dame, Anna Pappas*, University of Notre Dame, Ian Shuman*, University of Notre Dame, Jody Peters, University of Notre Dame , Kira Sullivan-Wiley, Boston University , Lindsay Darling, Purdue University, Kelly Heilman, University of Arizona , Chris Paciorek, University of California, Berkeley, Jason McLachlan, University of Notre Dame
Topics: Historical Geography
Keywords: Historical vegetation-environment relationship, PLS, ArcGIS
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 26
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Perceptions of the historical vegetation-environment relationship (VER) have long guided modern Midwestern land management decisions, but the historical VER may be emphasized differently depending on relative prioritization of management values such as conservation, timber production, and biomass storage. Consistent and statistically robust empirical estimates of historical vegetation composition and structure might help clarify a consistent use of the historical VER in management decisions. To this end, we used 19th century Public Land Survey (PLS) notes to develop a standardized method for digitizing vegetation data in Illinois and Indiana prior to European colonization. We used ArcGIS to map a representation of pre-settlement vegetation and publicly available data on soils, topography, and climate in order to analyze vegetation within the historical VER. The data revealed that the VER is further complicated by two distinct vegetation types: open oak savanna and dense beech-maple forest, while the modern landscape consists of mostly homogenous mesic forest. These distinct historical vegetation types are not well-explained by environmental covariates, indicating the existence of alternate climate-vegetation states. We found, for instance, that large parts of Indiana were occupied by dense maple and beech forests, which conflicts with the current management emphasis on creating open, oak-rich landscapes. PLS data thus aligns with and diverges from some management views. To begin to remedy this disconnect, the PLS data and subsequent GIS analysis provide a standardized model of the historical landscape in the Midwest which could help guide decisions based on the balance between the historical landscape and other management priorities.

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