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BW researchers turn back time to inform the future of NE Ohio's forests

Modern-day Cleveland Metroparks woodlands

What would Northeast Ohio's forests look like if we could take a time machine back to the turn of the 19th century before settlers arrived? How have the forces of urbanization changed the landscape from 1800 to now? What should restoration goals for the county's carefully preserved "Emerald Necklace" park system look like in the future?

Pages in the field notebook of James Arbuckle, who surveyed near the Cuyahoga River in 1806.A BW biology professor, Dr. Kathryn Flinn, and junior BW biology major Tylor Mahany '19, dug into those questions through "witness tree" research that relies on observations recorded in handwritten field books from the area's very first land surveys.

Meticulous maps and analyses of such records at the Western Reserve Historical Society were compared to a more recent survey of forestland completed by Dr. Constance Hausman, a plant and restoration ecologist with the Cleveland Metroparks.

Fewer beeches, more maples

Tylor MahaneyThe findings, just published in the international Journal of Vegetation Science, show tremendous changes in the region's plant communities over the past 200 years. Back then, the area was 94 percent forested with most woodlands dominated by beech or oak trees. Most of the remaining areas were covered by wetlands.

By 2014, development had swallowed up half of the wetlands and reduced forested areas in the county to less than 20 percent. Maple, elm and cherry trees, which bounce back easier and faster after disturbances, have replaced many of the once-dominant native trees, and the region's vegetation has become more homogeneous, losing much of its original variety.

The records also suggest a lack of permanent Native American settlements in the area at the time, with just one Indian "sugar camp" noted, and offer no evidence of vegetation shaped by frequent fire.

Takeaways for restoration

Dr. Kathryn M. Flinn, assistant professor of biology at Baldwin Wallace UniversityFlinn says this type of study, which reveals a "gold mine" of information about how past land use choices have impacted natural plant habitats, helps to predict the likely consequences of future urban development.

"Understanding how plant communities change over time is important to consider when we think about protection and restoration of natural ecosystems," says Flinn. "Many ecologists have mined early land survey records to help inform restoration goals, but this type of mapping had never been done before in Cuyahoga County."

One takeaway from the data? "Conservationists might explore future land acquisitions with beech and oak forests," Flinn notes. "Those types of additions would make protected parklands more representative of the pre-settlement era when half the forests were dominated by beech trees and a third were oak."

Determined detective work

Flinn and Mahany teamed up to start the research during their first semester on campus. Mahany was a freshman in the newly appointed Flinn's biology class.

"It took a lot of detective work and perseverance on Tylor's part to locate and decipher the surveyors' line-by-line observations," Flinn explains. "Some of the private Connecticut Land Company survey records held at the Western Reserve Historical Society were on microfilm; others were in handwritten, hand-sewn journals from the 1700s."

Swamps and snakebites

Modern-day Cleveland Metroparks woodlandsThe survey notes painted a vivid picture of the surveyors' daily adventures as they navigated the wilderness of northeast Ohio, crossing swamps and thickets "as thick set as the hair on a dog's back," battling diseases, snakebites, gnats and mosquitoes, and hunting for meat.

Mahany, who recently presented the findings at the 2018 Ohio Natural History Conference, adds, "The detail that the surveyors went into about the trees, soils and land was amazing. I learned a lot about the power of field observations, and how they could be useful centuries later."

Flinn is scheduled to present the research at two public forums in the fall:

  • the Western Cuyahoga Audubon Society September 4 at Rocky River Nature Center, and
  • the Kirtlandia Society September 8 at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

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