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common ground

Investigating Ecosystems
Spring 1995, vol. 8(1)

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*  Both Artifact and Habitat: The Nature of Our National Forests

(photo) Archeologist in the field.

"The public has spoken: save our forests for future generations. At the U.S. Forest Service, that means taking a more holistic view of America's woodlands-their past as well as their present. Enter archeology."

Sandra Jo Forney

by Sandra Jo Forney

The public has spoken: save our forests for future generations. At the U.S. Forest Service, that means taking a more holistic view of America's woodlands—their past as well as their present. Enter archeology.

The Forest Service eastern region is using archeology as part of a larger plan that recognizes the complexity and interconnections of all the resources in the national forests. This strategy encourages collaborations among biologists, silviculturists, and archeologists, who in the past may have focused only on their own discipline.

With this initiative, archeologists not only reconstruct and interpret how people shaped past ecosystems, but also look at how this information can help restore and sustain them in the future. Although this applied approach is not new to the discipline, it is quite an innovation at the Forest Service. Traditionally, the archeologist's job was to ensure that projects that could potentially destroy sites, such as road building, followed the myriad federal preservation laws and regulations passed to protect them. The new approach, however, integrates archeology and other heritage programs directly into land and resource management. No longer are they seen as encumbrances to projects, put there to ensure compliance with the law, but as an integral part of them.

The initiative provides the opportunity to search out the non-anthropological uses of archeological data, applying the principles of the discipline to purposes that are neither pure research nor compliance-oriented. The basic premise is that the archeological record, by offering evidence of what people did in the past, can benefit other areas of science—as well as help resolve land and resource issues. Even if the original composition of a forest is long gone, archeologists can often detect evidence of it in the sites and artifacts that remain.

A major objective of this initiative is to promote a closer working relationship between natural resource specialists and archeologists, historians, ethnographers, and related professionals, who sometimes hold the key to reproducing, restoring, and sustaining the ecological conditions of the past. Many land managers, ecologists, and biological scientists—discounting the fact that people have shaped ecosystems for millennia—imagine they are working with pristine environments untouched by the human hand. In fact, forests are both artifact and habitat.

Several projects are underway that should prove instructive for managing environments in the future.

Studies of early logging—of its methods, techniques, and associated archeological features—have been useful in determining the industry's impact on terrestrial as well as aquatic environments. At northwestern Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest, biologists, silviculturists, foresters, and botanists are looking to archeologists and related professionals to study the effect of the turn-of-the-century railroad era on today's forest cover. Archeologists are examining vegetational change and ecosystem response over the last century, which—together with historic documents—suggest that the modern forest's roots are intertwined with the era's timber harvesting practices, rail logging lines, and wood chemical factories. Such studies are proving their worth as well when it comes to restoring lost landscapes.

Zooarcheology has played a role in restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and sensitive species. The archeological record yields information on the evolution of species, including their past abundance, relationship with sources of food, competition with other animals, and the effects of changes in climate and water temperature. "Eco-archeological" analysis of plant remains are also useful to wildlife biologists tracking changes in habitats and species diversity.

Hydrologists and fisheries biologists are using archeological evidence in restoring streams and reintroducing species. The recovery of fish remains from archeological contexts is proving invaluable in analyzing past fish distributions, species displacement, catastrophic events, and—in conjunction with knowledge of current natural events—are helping explain long- and short-term trends.

At Horseshoe Bay in northern Minnesota's Chippewa National Forest, archeologists have analyzed approximately 200,000 fish bones, otoliths, and scales recovered from trading post structures dating from 1820 to 1860. This data, coupled with information from trader's journals and historic documents, provides a vivid picture of the abundance and diversity of species before the arrival of the fish harvesting industry. Fisheries biologists and archeologists are comparing this information with survey data from the modern era—1950 to 1990—to draft a plan for managing the region's current aquatic resources.

Cultural and archeological remains are more than the evidence people left on a landscape. They are the expressions of their interaction with that landscape. An historical record, if you will, of the dynamic and complex nature of ecosystems.

The Forest Service, by teaming its specialists in natural and cultural programs, recognizes that fact. It is a strategy that should serve the agency well in managing the nation's forest now and into the future.

For more information, contact Sandra Jo Forney, Regional Archeologist, U.S. Forest Service, Eastern Region, 310 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53203, (414) 297-3656.