American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery

American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery
By Douglas W. MacCleery

*Excerpted from Doug MacCleery’s fabulous book available from the Forest History Society

In American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery, by acclaimed forest historian Doug MacCleery, a factual and compelling description of American forests is documented. The pre-settlement North American forest landscapes were diverse in the size, quantity and species of trees and thus wildlife. Populations of whitetail deer, wild turkey, elk, pronghorns, bison and many other wildlife species abounded. The most abundant bird was the passenger pigeon. Bison roamed Pennsylvania indicating abundant grass and forbs created by fire. Natural and man-induced disturbances, such as fire and rudimentary agriculture maintained a dynamic diversity.

Changes in forest structure and reductions in cover are almost exclusively the result of agricultural expansion (estimated at 300 million acres) from roughly 1600 to 1920. This was the result of the largest and longest lasting privatization effort in the history of the world. As a result, America grew at a rate unprecedented in history. The driving political philosophy, embedded in the U.S. Constitution, was that transferring lands from public domain to private ownership was in the nation’s best interest.
Population exploded as word spread around the world that real opportunity for land ownership existed in America. Over a century and a half, the colonies reached a population of three million people. From 1785 to 1850, population increased more than seven times, to 23.3 million people.

Today, forest growth is four times greater than it was in 1920 and that growth exceeds harvest by 40 percent. The area of forestland today is about the same as it was in 1920 largely because of improvements in agricultural productivity. “The U.S. has less land under cultivation than it did in 1920, yet feeds hundreds of millions more people, both in the U.S. and internationally.”

Doug MacCleery’s poetic description of the American forest landscape:

East of the Mississippi River, deciduous and coniferous forests blanket New England. Open and sunlit pineries cover the southern coastal plain and Piedmont. Remarkably varied and productive central hardwood forests extend from the central and southern Appalachians through the Ohio Valley and central Midwest. Extensive pine and oak woodlands of the prairie fringe grow
in Texas, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. The cool deciduous and coniferous boreal forests shade the northern Lake States. West of the Mississippi River, rainfall diminishes, and forests and woodlands give way to treeless prairies and deserts. But in mountainous areas of the West where rainfall is sufficient, and along the Pacific Coast, extensive forests flourish.

Fire-maintained lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, and mixed-conifer forests cover the slopes of the Rocky Mountains and areas east of the Cascade and Sierra ranges in Washington, Oregon, and California. The most magnificent western forests grow along the rain-drenched and fog-shrouded coasts of the far West, where coast redwood and Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and hemlock form vast, cathedral-like stands.

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