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Interpreting and conserving the openland habitats of coastal New England: insights from landscape history

Foster, David R., Motzkin, Glenn
Forest ecology and management 2003 v.185 no.1-2 pp. 127–150
agricultural land, burning, coasts, conservation areas, forests, grasslands, grazing, habitats, heathlands, highlands, hurricanes, land use, landscapes, mowing, plowing, shrublands, shrubs, trees, New England region
Maintenance and restoration of grasslands, heathlands, and shrublands are high priorities for conservation due to their diversity of uncommon species and assemblages and their ongoing decline resulting from invasion by shrubs and trees. Much of the literature and management concerning openlands emphasizes burning to control woody growth, based on the interpretation that these habitats and their species assemblages were widespread during the pre-European period as a consequence of natural disturbance and Native American land use. By focusing on the coastal region of New England–New York, which harbors excellent examples of these habitats, is characterized by many natural disturbances (e.g. hurricanes, fire, salt spray), and supported relatively dense Native American populations, we assess the paleoecological, archaeological, historical, and modern ecological evidence supporting this perspective. We conclude that: (1) pre-European uplands, including coastal areas, were predominantly forested and that openland habitats were uncommon because natural and human disturbance was infrequent and local; (2) extensive openland vegetation developed only with widespread European forest clearance and land use; (3) assemblages occupying grasslands, shrublands, and heathlands apparently have no lengthy history and are comprised of species that combined opportunistically over recent centuries; (4) the decline of grasslands, heathlands, and shrublands is a century-old phenomena related to a decline in agricultural land use, especially grazing, mowing, plowing and burning; (5) effectively all conservation areas supporting these openland assemblages experienced intensive historical land use; and (6) the modern distribution, composition, and structure of these habitats are largely determined by European land use. Recognition that openland assemblages have cultural origins does not diminish the biological, cultural, or aesthetic value of these habitats. However, it does suggest that grasslands, heathlands and shrublands may be best managed using a combination of approaches that replicate the effects of historical land use. Conservationists should recognize that most of these landscapes have cultural origins and are inherently dynamic; that some vegetation structures and communities cannot be maintained continuously on a given site; and that management is most effective when based on historical and ecological studies leading to clearly defined objectives and rigorous long-term measurement and re-evaluation.