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Notes from a Long-Ago Land

MU scholars help ensure that field books from 19th-Century surveyors remain relevant.

Beginning in 1813, just a decade after the Louisiana Purchase, intrepid surveyors from the U.S. General Land Office used small, leather-bound field books such as this one to collect platting data for what would become the state of Missouri. In part because the GLO teams recorded detailed information about “witness trees” used to mark survey lines and section corners, their records, now housed in Rolla, contain a wealth of material concerning the scope and scale of Missouri’s early vegetation.

Jim Harlan, the now retired assistant program director of MU’s Geographic Resources Center, was among the first to fully explore the value of these old notes, most famously for a 2002 mapping project that detailed the Missouri River corridor as it would have appeared to the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. A more recent project, this one from MU’s Brice Hanberry, involved teaming up with the U.S. Forest Service to shed light on how decades of natural disturbances and human interventions have affected Missouri’s forests. After reviewing the GLO surveys, Hanberry, a research associate in the MU School of Natural Resources, used field-book data to determine that historical forests generally had fewer but larger trees, and were thus more likely to be open or park-like beneath a canopy of branches. Historical forests also had greater biomass and sequestered more carbon than those of today, a finding with obvious implications for climate change.

Should we aim to recreate the forests encountered by the early surveyors? Not possible, Hanberry says. But there are other, more practical ways to benefit from the lessons learned. “Conservation efforts in current forests should include retention of mature trees, and planners should consider retention of larger trees in urban, residential and agricultural uses to maintain ‘natural capital,’” Hanberry says. The study was published in the journal Ecological Complexity.

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