Forest cover changes in the Southeastern Piedmont during the 19th and early 20th centuries are associated with serious and persistent degradation to the region’s soils and hydrology. Farmers frequently shoulder the blame for this transition, accused of short-sighted decisions or lack of environmental knowledge and sophistication. We argue however, that the forest cover shift, over a 150-year period, in which the landscape changed from hardwood dominated forest to open landscape to successional pine forest is more complex than most narratives suggest. In this paper we use historical metes and bounds survey records to reconstruct the pace and character of agrarian deforestation on the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina for the years 1790-1940. Our data set is based on historical land surveys collected by the US Forest Service as part of their due diligence during the 1930s-40s acquisition of the land that today comprises Sumter National Forest. The data clearly documents shifts in witness tree species and control point type, which changed from trees to landform and artifactual markers as the presettlement forest cover was gradually reduced. We complement the witness tree data with other proxies for land consolidation and fragmentation (e.g. agricultural, real estate transaction, and probate records) and show how historical changes relate to local- and regional-level social and economic factors. Our analysis of the pace and character of forest cover change demonstrates the complexity of factors that contributed to landscape-level change and degradation.
Coughlan, M., D.R. Nelson, and M. Lonneman (2018): Gone with the witness tree: A reconstruction of historical forest cover change in the South Carolina Piedmont ca 1790-1940 using metes and bounds survey witness trees. American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, New Orleans, April 10-14, 2018.
This Paper/Book acknowledges NSF CZO grant support.