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Northern Research Station
One Gifford Pinchot Drive
Madison, WI 53726
(608) 231-9318
(608) 231-9544 TTY/TDD

Sustaining Forests

Central Appalachian Forests: Past and Present

Research Issue

[image:] Example of tract data used to create the witness tree database for the Monongahela National Forest.  Tree species noted for this 95-acre tract deeded to Andrew G. Mathews in 1843 came from corners identified in the deed. Click on image to see larger version.Knowing the forest composition and structure at the time of European settlement (or before) is difficult as most of Central Appalachian forests were impacted by harvesting and little old-growth forest remains.  One method for describing early forests is the use of witness trees given in deeds.  Generally, in older deeds a bearing and a distance is given to define the property boundary and the corner may be witnessed or described by one or more trees listed in the deed.  These deeds can be considered a near random sample of an area and the resulting species lists used to characterize the forest. 

Our Research

In the 1930s, the earliest deeds (dates range from 1752 to 1914) for the land within the proclamation boundary of the Monongahela National Forest were plotted on maps and the deeds compiled.  These maps were converted to a digital format, the corners digitized, and tree species referenced in the associated deeds tabulated.  This digital database of tree species at the time of European settlement will be used to describe species-environmental associations and suggest disturbance patterns.  This information can be used to guide forest restoration efforts, not as a static end-point to restore an area to, but as a reference condition to be considered. 

Expected Outcomes

As a result of our research, land managers will make better, more informed decisions about prioritizing ecosystem restoration.  Land managers and others will have a more complete picture of tree species composition before exploitative harvesting about 140 years ago.  Comparison of the early forest to current forests can be used to determine restoration needs or describe trends. 

Research Results

Rentch, James S.; Schuler, Thomas M. 2017. Early red spruce restoration research by the Appalachian Forest Experiment Station, 1922-1954. Journal of Forestry. 5 p.

Thomas-Van Gundy, Melissa A.; Nowacki, Gregory J.; Cogbill, Charles V. 2015. Mapping pyrophilic percentages across the northeastern United States using witness trees, with focus on four national forests. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-145. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 26 p.

Thomas-Van Gundy, Melissa A.; Strager, Michael P. 2014. Witness trees of the Monongahela National Forest: 1752-1899. Fort Collins, CO: Forest Service Research Data Archive.

Thomas-Van Gundy, Melissa A.; Nowacki, Gregory J. 2013. The use of witness trees as pyro-indicators for mapping past fire conditions. Forest Ecology and Management. 304: 333-344.

Thomas-Van Gundy, Melissa A.; Strager, Michael P. 2012. European settlement-era vegetation of the Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-GTR-101. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 39 p.

Thomas-Van Gundy, M.  2010.  Red Spruce (Picea rubens) Witness Trees on the Monongahela National Forest.  Poster.  In.  Rentch, J.S; Schuler, T.M., eds.  2010.  Proceedings of the Conference on the Ecology and Management of High-Elevation Forests of the Central and Southern Appalachian Mountains.  May 14-15, 2009, Snowshoe Mountain Resort, Slatyfork, West Virginia.

Schuler, T.M.; Gillespie, A.R.  2000.  Temporal patterns of woody species diversity in a central Appalachian forest from 1856 to 1997.  Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 127: 149-161.

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

Research Partners

  • Greg Nowacki, USDA Forest Service, Eastern Region - Regional Ecologist
  • Monongahela National Forest
  • Michael Strager, West Virginia University

Last Modified: 05/23/2018