Surprise: humans had positive effect on rainforest environment

From the UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO:

People enhanced the environment, not degraded it, over past 13,000 years

New research shows that 13,000 years of repeated human occupation by British Columbia's coastal First Nations has enhanced temperate rainforest productivity. CREDIT Will McInnes/Hakai Institute

New research shows that 13,000 years of repeated human occupation by British Columbia’s coastal First Nations has enhanced temperate rainforest productivity. CREDIT Will McInnes/Hakai Institute

Human occupation is usually associated with deteriorated landscapes, but new research shows that 13,000 years of repeated occupation by British Columbia’s coastal First Nations has had the opposite effect, enhancing temperate rainforest productivity.

Andrew Trant, a professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, led the study in partnership with the University of Victoria and the Hakai Institute. The research combined remote-sensed, ecological and archaeological data from coastal sites where First Nations’ have lived for millennia. It shows trees growing at former habitation sites are taller, wider and healthier than those in the surrounding forest. This finding is, in large part, due to shell middens and fire.

“It’s incredible that in a time when so much research is showing us the negative legacies people leave behind, here is the opposite story,” said Trant, a professor in Waterloo’s School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability. “These forests are thriving from the relationship with coastal First Nations. For more than 13,000 years –500 generations — people have been transforming this landscape. So this area that at first glance seems pristine and wild is actually highly modified and enhanced as a result of human behaviour.”

Fishing of intertidal shellfish intensified in the area over the past 6,000 years, resulting in the accumulation of deep shell middens, in some cases more than five metres deep and covering thousands of square metres of forest area. The long-term practice of harvesting shellfish and depositing remnants inland has contributed significant marine-derived nutrients to the soil as shells break down slowly, releasing calcium over time.

The study examined 15 former habitation sites in the Hakai Lúxvbálís Conservancy on Calvert and Hecate Islands using remote-sensed, ecological and archaeological methods to compare forest productivity with a focus on western red cedar.

The work found that this disposal and stockpiling of shells, as well as the people’s use of fire, altered the forest through increased soil pH and important nutrients, and also improved soil drainage.

This research is the first to find long-term use of intertidal resources enhancing forest productivity. Trant says it is likely similar findings will occur at archaeological sites along many global coastlines.

“These results alter the way we think about time and environmental impact,” he said. “Future research will involve studying more of these human-modified landscapes to understand the extent of these unexpected changes.”

The study appears today in Nature Communications.

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58 thoughts on “Surprise: humans had positive effect on rainforest environment

  1. To the south, in Oregon and Washington State, Indians also made the land more productive by burning valley forests.

  2. As lush as west-coast rain forests are, like many rain forests they suffer from nutrient deficiencies.

    • “many rain forests (they )suffer from nutrient deficiencies”

      .Not enough Popes being Catholics or something.

  3. ..Are these “experts” really trying to pretend that this is something new ?? Native American forest management in Canada has been around for a long time…

    • Of course they didn’t clear cut. The native Americans did not possess the tools. Truth be told, they burnt down the trees.

      • True at Heceta Head Lighthouse on Oregon coast the landscape is covered in trees but in old photos it is barren.
        The Indians kept it burnt off for the elk they hunted

    • Ruined? What about the benefits of clear cutting?

      The (endangered species?) Canadian Lynx population soared as a result of clear cutting. Once the underbrush re-established, the rabbit population exploded, and the Lynx populations soon followed.

      The consequences of man’s activities aren’t always dire.

      • Extensive clear cutting certainly had it’s issues, mainly in mountainous terrain. The big Pacific Northwest flood of 1964/65 showed why clear cutting the mountains was a bad idea. The flood turned into a flood/mud flow combination that devastated many small communities from California to the Canadian border. Bridges, roads and towns were wiped out. The ancient Indian village at the junction of the Klamath and Trinity rivers, which had survived for around 12,000 to 15,000 years was reduced to a boulder strewn gravel bar. That was all caused by the clear cuts.

      • Clear-cutting or no clear-cutting, ……. 38” of rain in mountainous terrain is a bad idea, to wit:

        The Christmas flood of 1964 was a major flood that took place in the Pacific Northwest and California between December 18, 1964, and January 7, 1965,

        This melted the snow, but left the soil frozen and impermeable. Some places received the equivalent of a year’s rain in just a few days. Albany received 13 inches (330 mm) of rain in December, almost double its average December rainfall of 7 inches (200 mm).[3] Detroit recorded an extra 18 inches (460 mm) of rain, and at Crater Lake, where the average normal December rainfall is 12 inches (300 mm), there was over 38 inches (970 mm) of rain.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_flood_of_1964

        In West Virginia they always blame those “flash floods” that are caused by 8” to 13” of rainfall, …… on timbering and Mountain Top Removal coal mining …… even if the “flash flooding” occurred in the business district of downtown Charleston, WV.

        James Hansen et el ……. don’t like timbering or MTR’ing. (and Hansen didn’t like being arrested for trespassing, either)

  4. for a bit of trivia:
    vancouver island is a northern temperate rain forest.
    it rains so much that mushrooms don’t grow – nutrients are washed out of the soil.
    wherever a dog leaves a pile of dung on the schoolyard- it does not make a brown spot- it makes a deep emerald green extra-lush spot.

  5. STOP THE PRESSES!!

    Humans have a positive impact?! OH NOES!!! That can’t be right. Humans are evil plagues let loose upon Mother Earth with no other intention but to destroy her natural resources! HERESY I SAY. This is heresy…..oh what will the CAGW equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition do?

    /sarc

    Seriously……no sh*t Sherlock.

  6. They are giving credit to early peoples and their primitive lifestyles that left an impact but a limited one. This is not an exoneration of modern humans and our urban lifestyles. Instead it is praise for the green utopic vision of living in one with nature and living with a minimal footprint. Ive no doubt any greeny who reads this will first reject it and then conclude it as an indirect indictment of modern lifestyles.

      • If memory serves me correctly Andrew Nikiforuk pointed out that the great forests of Europe date back to the plague. We had over populated, deforested, died in plagues, and learned from our experience.

        While I was googling to find a reference for the above, I stumbled across this nugget. It seems that the native population of North America had deforested much of the continent. When they suffered their own plague (due to my ancestors) the continent reforested itself. This caused … wait for it … the Little Ice age. Gott im Himmel!

      • Quote from above:
        We did manage to deforest much of the Old and New Worlds.

        Of course us humans did ……. and that deforestation of the Northern Hemisphere most certainly should have left it’s “signature” somewhere, someplace, in at least one (1) of the dozen or so CO2 Proxy records.

        So why hasn’t at least one (1) of the Climate Scientists(sic) researching atmospheric CO2 ppm pointed out, defined or at least questioned said deforestation “signature”?

        And don’t be forgetting that a horrendous amount of that deforested ….. timber “sequestered” CO2 …….. is still sequestered in the timbers, lumber, boards, etc., that were used to build the “great cities” in North America.

        Iffen, as 97% of all Climate Scientists(sic) claim, that the Summertime “greening” of the NH forests directly causes an average 8 ppm DECREASE in atmospheric CO2, …… then surely the “deforestation” of North America for the purpose of “clearing” farmland, building homes, barns, buildings and the “great cities”, ….. that began with “gusto” in the early 1700’s should have been causing a yearly or decadal DECREASE in average atmospheric CO2 ppm.

        “DUH”, almost 200 years of “deforestation” causing yearly or decadal DECREASES in atmospheric CO2 ppm ……… before there ever began a widespread use of “fossil fuel” causing yearly or decadal INCREASES in atmospheric CO2 ppm.

        Me thinks that …….. “they want their CO2 $$cake and eat it too”.

      • WHAT, no one bothered to question this comment in my above post, to wit:

        DUH”, almost 200 years of “deforestation” causing yearly or decadal DECREASES in atmospheric CO2 ppm.

    • Matthew Epp;
      Interesting take. So greenies will view this as the Land of Happy (Silverstein reference) rather than ancient man changed their environment in order to suit their needs and survive? I can see that especially from a naive interpretation/perception of the article.

    • My thoughts exactly! The greens will use this to support the idea that we must reduce population and return to primitive technology. GK

  7. There is a bit of cognitive dissonance among the greens regarding environmental management. Their default “decision” is to do nothing, in the belief people make things worse, so any evidence of good management grates on their system.
    Where I currently live, the Hill Country of Texas, there is fair evidence that the Indians/Native Americans managed the terrain with fire. Much of the current problems are due to infestations of Ashe Juniper/cedar thickets, which allegedly the Indians managed with frequent low fires. There are coherent accounts that much of the “natural” landscape the Europeans encountered was managed or feral, ignoring the activities of the Indians for multiple thousands of years.

  8. It won’t matter if it was a positive impact or not.
    They don’t want man to have any impact.
    Basically because they don’t want there to be any people.

    Funny how they never volunteer to go first.

  9. Good thing there were no virtue signalling greens around then to force those early Asian immigrants to cart all those shells off to the recycling centre two valleys over. I suspect they didn’t transport their other organic waste material very far either. The fertilization effect is quite predictable and the early inhabitants of those areas may even have noticed it. Was it their primary reason for dumping their refuse where they did?

    But, credit where credit is due. Through observation, in some coastal areas of BC these groups built into their oral traditions, stories of how the bears nurtured “salmon trees”. Apparently there is some confirmation showing that bears hauling thousands of salmon out of spawning streams and rivers, back into the trees, eating the tasty bits and leaving most of the carcass then going back for more has a measurable effect with increased growth in peak salmon years. Were they just emulating the bears? Who knew bears were so far ahead of the curve on fish fertilizer, unprocessed and processed?

    Perhaps our time horizon in evaluating our impact is just too short? Future generations may seek out the sites of our landfills to buy their dream properties. Imagine the explosion of life and growth that will happen when all of those twonkies, half bags of w0nder bread and disposable diapers finally break down. That of course will be some decades after the sites have been mined for the materials in all of those disposable batteries.

    Can I get enviro street cred for my weeds being greener over the septic field?

    If I must…../sarc

  10. Trees can be a very oppressive life form. They suck up much of the moisture, nutrient and light on a site to the exclusion of many other organisms. Those organisms would not rejoice that trees were bigger. Nature loves a good forest fire. It is a juvenile, human centered bias that big trees are a positive.

  11. The headline is misleading – ancient man may inadvertently had a positive impact on some aspects of the forest environment. Rather more doubtful – in fact inconceivable – that much current forestry practice will be seen to have similar positive impacts in the futures –

  12. Soon to be ex-Professor Trant? Good luck getting government grant money in the future. There is absolutely no doom and gloom to this article at all.

  13. Moose poop is also an important way to transfer nutrients locked up in the plants of streams and lakes back up the hill.

    • Good story. Saw a documentary about the argument between cattlemen and the National Parks about continuing grazing through summer or banning. The ignorant Professor spotted some fresh horse dung left by wild brumbies. It was hard to believe, but he plunged his hands straight into to lift it for the camera calling it pollution. The man was highly educated but still a fool.

  14. Not so incredible when a century of ecological studies tell us that more complex systems generally are more productive. Humans add to the complexity of this system. The key has been not to overpopulate so that complexity is reduced by over-consumption.

  15. This conclusions of this research must be blasphemy to the religion of rabid environmentalists. Their dogma does not allow for humans to be a positive influence on anything. Nothing will convince them that the planet is not better off without us, or deter them from their goal of removing human influence from every place they can.

  16. Concerning the “on-going deforestation” it is a myth. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, trees are being added globally. In the U.S., a half a ton of new trees per person is added every year. The growth is due to, among others, the higher concentration of CO2, which nourishes trees, due to humans eliminating wood for heating and cooking, for toys, etc.
    New England where I live was near forest-free at the time of Civil War. Viewed from an airplane it now appears forest canopy covered, with open patches for townships that also contain trees some towering over the roofs. Overall, there are billions of trees standing, many more billions of seedlings are sprouting every year, and all that results in net wood being added continuously.

    • @jake: “In the U.S., a half a ton of new trees per person is added every year. “

      If I may add some context to those numbers:

      0.5 tons = 1,000 pounds = approximately one 8′-tall white oak tree measuring 8″ across at its first branching. (SI: 244 cm tall x 20.3 cm wide = 454 kg), or about 310,000,000 juvenile trees per year (3-10 years old), depending (wildly!) upon the type of tree.
      [ http://www.ncrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/ch/ch01/Chvolume01page401.pdf ]

      Given the recent “census” which claims some 3,000,000,000,000+ trees world-wide, this rate would equate to an overall population increase of ~0.001% per year (less, if we’re counting total biomass), and that only if the rest of the world maintained an even balance… which, sadly-yet-unsurprisingly it does not, resulting in the net LOSS of about 10,000,000,000 trees world-wide (~0.3%) every year despite the U.S. effort. (You know. Allegedly. [ http://www.cbsnews.com/news/tree-census-three-trillion-trees-on-earth/ , inter alia])

      I’d also point out that linking CO2 increase to any particular end point in this process seems a stretch: CO2 fertilization doesn’t (cannot!) “out-grow” poor forestry practices (see above); neither does it explain the ~380% increase in U.S. forests over the last century (10x – 20x the % increase in atmospheric CO2 over the period, depending on your choice of measurements).

      “CO2 is good for plants, trees included!” is a fine assertion with a large amount of evidence to back it up — and for the record, isn’t one I disagree with in principle — but tying it to forest growth/loss in general as anything other than a confounding factor in the overall system still needs a lot more evidence. Color me “cautiously optimistic.”

      I’m glad your trees are back.

      “There’s nothing wrong with hugging a tree. Just keep in mind the tree doesn’t really know the difference, and you look kinda funny while you’re doing it.” – a friend of mine

      • ETA: Should have read “one hundredth of a percent,” not “one thousandth.” So many zeros….

      • I see no reason why you could not contact the U.S. Dep’t of Agriculture with your argument. I should be interested in reading their reply. Post it.

      • Hi jake,

        Can’t seem to find where the USDA (or the Forestry Service, a branch thereof) specifically says anything much about world-wide tree populations; could you point me in the right direction? Thanks!

        I did find a publication [ http://www.fia.fs.fed.us/library/brochures/docs/2012/ForestFacts_1952-2012_Metric.pdf ] dated 2012 that claimed: “During the past 60 years, net growing-stock growth
        has consistently exceeded growing-stock removals in the United States. In terms of percent of standing
        volume, removals are at the lowest level in the past 60 years and growth has also slowed. The volume of annual net growth is currently 2 times higher than the volume of annual removals. Mortality remains similar to 2006, at less than 1 percent of standing inventory.”
        (emphasis mine)

        That same publication claims that much of the timber harvested is now coming from Eastern (specifically Southern), privately-owned woodlands while moving away from the traditional Western, publicly-owned forests. As expected, the governmental entity responsible for the pamphlet isn’t too keen on this: ” As the emphasis on timber production shifts from public to private lands, the need for information on the
        management objectives and behaviors of the private forest land owners has increased. This information is critical for informing U.S. policies promoting sustainable forestry.
        (again, my emphasis)

        Also interesting is their definition of “forest land:” “Land at least 120 feet (ft) (37 meters[m]) wide and at least 1 acre (0.4 hectare) in size with at least 10-percent cover (or equivalent stocking) by live trees including land that formerly had such tree cover and that will be naturally or artificially regenerated.” IOW, a typical suburban-to-rural plot of land with a typical number of trees on it is officially defined as “forest land,” and thus subject to their oversight.

        (IOW, those of you with trees on your property have been given all the warning you’ll ever get!)

        Sorry to the mods if this is starting to track OT, I do like trees. ^_^;;;

  17. More PC speak. White man is evil, indigenous people love and help nature. Okay, go to N. Vancouver Island and go fishing and show me anything of legal catch size that is left. I have been there. Let me see, 2 giant crab traps, 100% females. Ling Cod, juvenile. Salmon, juveniles. Nothing is left. Rah, rah, native Americans.

  18. With the EPA and Warmer backed Junk Science telling them the CO2 levels were flat until recently they have no basis for considering the possibility of a rising CO2 level enhancing biosphere growth as a result of outgassing from warming oceans…

  19. Humans are smart. When we see we are hurting the environment, we introduce some practise to fix it.

    Cut down the cedar trees in Lebanon and introduce goats and sheep to the hillside afterward which eat everything to the ground. And, Yeah, the trees are gone. The humans that did this didn’t know what they were doing but we do now (and the goats and the sheep and every other animal would never even consider the situation).

    We are smart enough without the environmentalists banging on drums to be able to figure it out and fix any mistakes.

    • Reply to englandrichard ==> Thank you for this link (I was actively searching for it..then saw your comment.)

      “Few if any pristine landscapes remained in 1492,” says Clement. “Many present Amazon forests, while seemingly natural, are domesticated.”

      This has been found true in all areas of the world inhabited by man — mankind alters the environment to its own purposes (as do most animal and plant populations — often in conflict with one another but occassionally cooperating).

      What we see today as “pristine ancient forests” are exceedingly rare, not because we have modernly destroyed them, but because there are few places in which mankind hasn’t already, long ago, changed the environment in major ways. Some of these changes have been destructive — the overgrazing and deforestation of huge swaths of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions for example. Others, neither destructive or beneficial, just making changes — the early Americans regularly used fire to create open areas in forests to improve hunting of large animals such as deer, elk, and bison.

  20. Well, in the couple of hundred years since white folk showed up in Australia, we managed to cut down around 75% of our tropical rainforests.

  21. Archaeological work near Port Angeles WA show that tribal people used fire to fell trees, to create meadows where more edible plants could grow, and interface shrubbery where animals and birds lived (deer like tree leaves and plant shoots, for example). They harvested the deer for meat and hides, useful for clothing and tents. They burned themeadows periodically to suppress competing species (Douglas Fir tends to take over) and kill insects harmful to edible plants (such as Camas lilly roots).

  22. Across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the People’s State of Saanich is oppressing property owners to protect those meadows, which they call Garry Oak Ecosystems. IOW, they consider recent human activity bad but exempt human activity from more than a few hundred years ago.

    The definition of Garry Oak Ecosystem creeps, some consider vernal ponds part of a GOE (that’s just a seasonal pond, existing in a depression underlain by soil that does not drain well – basic puddle we called that where I grew up without an Garry Oaks around).

    The government of the PSS misleads by defining species on political boundaries not the essentials real people have in mind when they use the word. That lets them pull the scam of claiming that Garry Oak trees only exist on southern Vancouver Island, when in fact they grow down the coast to California. So common in Oregon that lumber from them is shipped to BC so people can vint wine in Garry Oak barrels. (South of that line on pieces of paper that species can’t read the tree is called Oregon White Oak and other colloquial names, Garry is its formal biological name.)

  23. Out west of Victoria, historical records show that people from the city complained about smoke from tribal burning of brush to enhance growth of berries.

    Tribal people exploited the land, practicing basic farming with the meadows and with clam gardens – reducing beach slope to the optimum for clam growth, akin to terracing land.

    Of course animals exploit the environment:
    – Beavers are especially bad.
    – Bear dig dens.
    – Rabbits dig burrows for soccer players to wrench their ankle in.
    It’s life.

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