Pathways for Sustainable Land Use

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Tompkins Weekly 8-31-15

By Steve Gabriel

Understanding and using historical ecological knowledge to properly manage the landscape is one of the great tasks of landowners in our time. Over the past fifty to one hundred years, forests around the region have been coming back, due largely to the widespread abandonment of farm fields. The inevitable restorative nature of the forest is a blessing to our generation, but one we must not take for granted. With rising fuel costs and an increasingly extractive culture, we have a danger of repeating the mistakes of the past, of turning an emerging legacy into devastation.

Historically, the ecological abundance of the northeastern US amazed European settlers, who had come from lands destroyed by civilizations thousands of years earlier. “The aboundance of Sea-Fish are almost beyond beleeving and sure I scarce have believed it myself except I had seene it with my own eyes,” wrote Francis Higginson in 1630. Birds, other wildlife, and trees seemed endless in supply to the new settlers and they treated them as such. Much more significant in the consumption of resources was not in the use of materials domestically, but the massive exportation back to Europe.

One of the fundamental differences between the management done by native peoples versus the settlers was grounded in each cultures view of their own relationship to land they inhabited. The natives had been of this land since the beginning of time, and so viewed the landscape with a reverence; it was all they knew. Europeans generally came into the picture either to escape from religious pressures or because of an interest in commodities – buying and selling goods for profit. Being from the land bores a different perspective than arriving in order to benefit from it.

This element has an important application in modern times. The soup pot of America is indeed a diverse batch and very few of us can claim multiple generational inhabitance of place: those that can hardly go back more than one hundred years. We might consider, however, that a re-inhabitation of the land is possible, that we can again return to a perspective that recognizes forests and waters as our “home” again. Only if we can step into this way of being can we really ever have a meaningful conversation about sustainable land use. No ecosystem will be restored and maintained in a perfect climax state in our lifetimes; indeed it will be a cross-generational effort that will bring us back into ecological health. We must consider the importance of designing so that future generations will inherit landbases we have taken care of.

Several other misconceptions held by European settlers dominated the initial changes in the landscape of New England. For one, much of the written accounts claimed a year round summer of laborless wealth, where natives were perceived to simply harvest the bounty of the land around them. The newcomers had little understanding or respect for how hard the native peoples worked the landscape and how attuned to the seasons they had become to survive over multiple generations.

The idea that native communities were lazy and unconcerned with management practices came from an idea that there was only one way to manage. Settlers often made land claims based on the fact that the acreage had been “improved” – in other words, cleared and plowed. The culture of the colonies put tremendous pride in what they saw as the ordering of chaos, a perception that blinded them to the wilder “husbandry” of animals and crops natives were tending to. Through hunting, burning, and habitat management, natives were able to subsist off the wild land generation after generation.

It is unclear how aware each of these cultures were of the impacts of their practices on the environment; what is clear is that native practices tended to improve and diversify environments and colonial practices tended to degrade or destroy them. When settlers observed Indians burning ground fires to clear brush for hunting and travel, they were likely largely unaware of the myriad of ecological benefits that occurred. Such practices increased the rate of nutrient deposits in the soil, encouraged the rapid growth of many edible berries and other foods, warmed and dried the soil which favored later successional trees, and destroyed diseases and pests.

The quality of these small fires, which tended to be kept at a relatively low temperature and burned only the underbrush on a small piece of land created a mosaic of habitats ideal for wildlife. In contrast, settlers would tend to burn hot fires (which destroyed much of the overstory) over long distances, effectively leaving nothing in their path. Rather than let the ecosystem respond they would then plow and plant crops less adapted to the natural environment.

Even today, we can gain a bundle of lessons from these historical observations. For one, we might consider the layered benefits of managing wild habitats for to cultivate more of our needs for food, fuel, and other products rather than destroying them for more intensively managed systems. We can also consider how we can better become inhabitants of our land bases, viewing the resources as “home” rather than as commodities. And finally, we must consider the health of the landscape as our primary objective, before all other economic or social needs and desires.

During an upcoming short course in Forestry and Agroforestry (Sept 11 – 15) with local forester Mike Demunn, we will explore the notion that perspective lends to practice. Mike is part Haudenosaunee native and was raised by a Seneca Clan mother and given the name Da’ Ha’ da’ nyah, meaning “he protects the forest.” He also attended conventional forestry school and worked for the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and the Soil and Water District, and for industry as head forester for a large lumber company. He is a person who has walked the edge between worlds, combining understanding of forest from many perspectives. The result? The woods he now caretakes are a testament to what forestry can be. A visitor could step into a forest that Mike thinned and hardly notice anything had been done. The diversity, health, and wildlife value of these forests is in better shape than when he found it.

Steve Gabriel is a local ecologist, author, educator, and farmer. He is a co-author of Farming the Woods with retired Cornell professor Ken Mudge. Learn more about the course by visiting

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