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Native Americans Used Selective Low-Intensity Fires to Create Open, Park-Like Forests In Pre-Colonial New England

The following is an edited excerpt from "Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England," an ecological history of pre-colonial New England by estemed historian and former Yale and University of Wisconsin professor, William Cronon.
 
    English settlers were impressed by the Indians' burning of extensive sections of the surrounding forest once or twice a year. This was the reason that the forests in Massachusetts and most of southern New England were so open and parklike; not because the trees naturally grew thus, but because the Indians preferred them so.
     By removing underwood and fallen trees, the Indians reduced the total accumulated fuel at ground level. With only small non-woody plants to consume, the annual fires moved quickly, burned with relatively low temperatures, and soon extinguished themselves.
     They were more ground fires than forest fires, not usually involving larger trees, and so they rarely grew out of control. Fires of this kind could be used to drive game for hunting, to clear fields for planting, and, on at least one occasion, to fend off European invaders.
     The trees of the southern forest [ed note: Groton is part of the ‘southern forest.’] , once fully grown, suffered little more than charred bark if subjected to ground fires of short duration. If destroyed, they regenerated themselves by sprouting from their roots: chestnuts, oaks, and hickories, the chief constituents of the southern upland forests, are in fact sometimes known as "sprout hardwoods."
     Colonial observers understood burning as being part of Indian efforts to simplify hunting and facilitate travel; most failed to see its subtler ecological effects. In the first place, it increased the rate at which forest nutrients were recycled into the soil, so that grasses, shrubs, and non-woody plants tended to grow more luxuriantly following a fire than they had before. Especially on old Indian fields, fire created conditions favorable to strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and other gatherable foods. Grasses like the little bluestem were rare in a mature forest, but in a forest burned by Indians they became abundant.
     The thinning of the forest canopy, which resulted from the elimination of smaller trees, allowed more light to reach the forest floor and further aided such growth. Burning also tended to destroy plant diseases and pests, not to mention fleas, which inevitably became abundant around Indian settlements. Roger Williams summed up these effects by commenting that "this burning of the Wood to them they count a benefit, both for destroying of vermin, and keeping downe the Weeds and thickets."
     Selective Indian burning thus promoted the mosaic quality of New England ecosystems, creating forests in many different states of ecological succession. In particular, regular fires promoted what ecologists call the "edge effect." By encouraging the growth of extensive regions, which resembled the boundary areas between forests and grasslands, Indians created ideal habitats for a host o wildlife species.
     Of all early American observers, only the astute Timothy Dwight seems to have commented on this phenomenon. The object of these conflagrations," he wrote, "was to produce fresh and sweet pasture for the purpose of alluring the deer to the spots on which they had been kindled." The effect was even subtler than Dwight realized: because the enlarged edge areas actually raised the total herbivorous food supply, they not merely attracted game but helped create much larger populations of it.
     Indian burning promoted the increase of exactly those species whose abundance so impressed English colonists: elk, deer, beaver, hare, porcupine, turkey, quail, ruffed grouse, and so on. When these populations increased, so did the carnivorous eagles, hawks, lynxes, foxes, and wolves. In short, Indians who hunted game animals were not just taking the "unplanted bounties of nature"; in an important sense, they were harvesting a foodstuff which they had consciously been instrumental in creating.
     Few English observers could have realized this. People accustomed to keeping domesticated animals lacked the conceptual tools to realize that Indians were practicing a more distant kind of husbandry of their own.
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