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Ecologist Compares Landscape of
Today with Thoreau's Time
October 4, 1999

Students and faculty enjoyed a scenery change September 23, packing Konover Auditorium instead of classrooms and offices, for a photographic lecture by ecologist David R. Foster.

Presenting slides that compared the present Massachusetts landscape to that recorded by transcendentalist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau in the mid 1800s, Foster said that "understanding the history of New England's woodlands helps us understand the present."

In Thoreau's time, he said, agricultural lands dominated New England, restricting trees to small wood lots used mostly for fuel. But as the population centralized in urban areas during the industrial revolution, farmlands were abandoned and forests returned.

"We've gone from a situation in which states like Connecticut, Massachusetts, and even New Hampshire had only 35 to 50 percent forest coverage in the mid-19th century to situations where they now have 60 to 90 percent forest coverage," said Foster, director of the Harvard Forest.

Showing slides of population density in Massachusetts, he explained that while urban areas in and around Boston, Worcester and Springfield had increasing population densities, the rest of Massachusetts had considerably lower population densities after the industrial revolution. This allowed the less densely populated areas to become naturally reforested, despite overall state population growth.

Foster said there has been a change in scientific attitudes toward forest fires. Relying on tree growth ring samples from the region as historical records, and his extensive research, he

suggested that forest fires are actually beneficial. "Fires occur frequently in many of these landscapes," he said. "Many of those fires in fact are caused by natural ignition, by lightning, and fires may actually be an essential and integral part of the planet's forests."

He said forest fires diversify a landscape and allow more plant and animal species to thrive. Caribou, for instance, find havens in recently burned areas where they find lichen growing in abundance to eat. In addition, forest fires consume insulating ground layers of humus, exposing the nutrient-rich soil below, and promoting rapid forest re-growth.

Criticizing previously over-zealous fire control measures, Foster said, "By eliminating fire, we actually disturbed the (ecological) system."

Scientists are now using history to understand how frequently fires occur, and are then allowing it to occur naturally, he said, yet Thoreau documented the benefits of forest fires 125 years before the U.S. Natural Park Service incorporated beneficial fire management into its program.

Foster urged the audience to keep a global perspective in mind. New Englanders used to maintain farms and reap local natural resources, but now rely more on natural resources imported from other regions in the world, he said.

'We are living an environmental lie,' he said, adding that, despite landscape recovery in the United States, it is not true that the world's forested environments are improving.

The lecture was the first in this year's Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series on nature and the environment.

John S. Paulhus