ELKINS, W.Va. -- A recent study provides a glimpse of what the Monongahela Forest looked like in West Virginia before the land was settled and logged.
Researchers with the U.S. Forest Service and West Virginia University used original deeds dating from 1752 to 1899 to create a database of 22,328 trees used by surveyors to note 15,589 boundary corners. Forty-nine species of these so-called witness trees are in the database.
The researchers also created digital versions of parcel maps that were based on the surveys.
White oak was found to be the most common species overall in the study area, followed by sugar maple, American beech, and American chestnut.
Magnolia, sugar maple, black cherry, red spruce, hemlock, birch, American beech, basswood and red oak were the most common high elevation species. American chestnut, chestnut oak, white pine, yellow pine and an unknown species called spruce-pine were found at moderate elevations.
Low elevation species included blackgum, black walnut, white oak, elm and sycamore.
"We already had a general idea of what species existed prior to European settlement," lead author Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy told The Inter-Mountain.
"Our purpose with this study was to uncover greater detail of the early forest -- basically what species would you find where in this very complex topography. We also wanted to try a different method of analysis that expands the usefulness of historic documents in recreating forests of the past."
The study also found that the original surveyors knew a thing or two about trees.
"In the surveys we used in this study, it's evident that the surveyors had broad knowledge of the common trees in this forest," Thomas-Van Gundy said. "They used a wide range of trees as witness trees and identified many of them to species, and while any individual surveyor may have had a favorite species to use as a witness tree, he could only choose from the species present at that particular corner."
The study's combination of historical documents and scientific method is extraordinary, said Michael T. Rains, director of the Forest Service's Northern Research Station in Parsons.
"It is not every day that our work is aided by colonial America surveyors," Rains said.European Settlement-Era Vegetation of the Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia