Charlie Cogbill, an ecologist on the research team, spent three decades compiling these early records from the public archives of nearly 1,300 towns. The massive geo-database he built pinpoints the location of more than 350,000 witness trees, forming the basis of this study.
David Foster, co-author of the study and director of the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts, explains, "It is critical to understand the nature and scale of forest change triggered by human impacts. Charlie's effort to amass the witness trees provides a serendipitous window into the region's earliest forests, enabling us to assess the cumulative effect of centuries of land use and climate change."
Even 200 years later, the legacy of colonial farming remains the most powerful factor in determining modern forest composition -- more powerful than regional climate, soil conditions, and many other factors. "To get a sense of how much a forest has changed, the first question to ask is how extensively the area was farmed over the past two centuries," says Dunbar Carpenter, co-author of the study and research assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If more than half the town was farmed, he adds, local forests have probably diverged a good deal from their pre-colonial condition.
Across the board, reports the study, these changes have made modern forests more homogenous and less responsive to small changes in temperature and precipitation. Despite forest clearing, widespread logging, fires, climate change, invasive pests, and disease, the Northeast remains the most heavily forested region of the country.
"The overriding theme of this forest re
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