A Very Brief History of Eastern United States Forests
Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Native Americans, using fire, managed the lands with great understanding. In the forests they used fire to favor the growth of nut trees and berry plants. They were interested in controlling the undergrowth so that game and enemies could be easily seen. John Fontaine, the Chronicler of the 1716 expedition led by Governor Spotswood to cross the Blue Ridge, noted that he had never seen such large trees and in the Piedmont the land was almost park like.
With the arrival of the folk from Europe, the forest began to be cut down for timber and cleared for crops. This process proceeded over several centuries, so that today only ½ of one per cent of our forests are old-growth. Most of these are in very remote places.
With the establishment of our Forest Service in the late 1800’s natural fires were suppressed. The Native Americans management with fire had ceased for some time. Fire had been so natural that a number of plants, now endangered, evolved with fire as a requisite in their life cycle.
Deer browsing has put great pressure on the young oaks and hickories. The lack of fire is favoring the thin barked shade loving trees, such as red maple and beech. You can notice this change, when you travel through wooded areas. Lots of our forest lands have been converted to pine plantations with the loss of as much as 90% of the forest biodiversity.