Old-growth forests are a rare element in the Inner Bluegrass Region. So, it was a great delight when old trees were discovered at Floracliff.
Old trees are windows into historical events. The science
of tree-ring analysis takes advantage of a characteristic common to all
trees: no matter how bad things get - an approaching fire, tornado, drought,
etc. - trees must stay in place and absorb these abuses. Though each tree
is an individual, environmental events like these impact all trees in
a similar fashion: events that limit a tree's ability to gain energy reduce
the annual ring width. Scientists interpret patterns of ring widths within
tree populations to reconstruct environmental history. To date, tree-ring
scientists have successfully reconstructed drought history, Northern Hemisphere
temperature, fire histories, insect outbreaks, etc. Tree-ring studies
have also enriched human history. For example, scientists have dated logs
from ancient structures that, in turn, triggered revisions of human history.
Similarly, tree-ring evidence indicates that a severe drought likely contributed
to the failure of The Lost Colony in Roanoke, NC and to the outbreak of
a highly-contagious disease and subsequent crashes of the human population
in ancient Mexico City. Just a few old trees in a small landscape can
shed light into long-forgotten or unobserved events.
I taught a course at Eastern Kentucky University on the ecology of old- growth forests. A reoccurring theme throughout the course was, "What is an old-growth forest?" As our society progresses and understands the value of biological conservation, this question becomes pertinent. If the definition of an old-growth forest is simply a forest untouched by people of European descent, then there are no old-growth forests and little incentive to protect once, twice or thrice disturbed forests. However, if we define old-growth forests using the philosophy of Michael Pollan, who states that old-growth forests (or anything natural) will only persist because of human will, then it makes sense to allow the influence of humans into the old-growth forest definition. Making this allowance then allows for future creation and restoration of old-growth forests, a concept that the former definition makes impossible.
Even though this environmental investigation has closed,
I look forward to the future of Floracliff and discoveries of the environmental
history of the Inner Bluegrass Region. Floracliff is a rare gem of the
Inner Bluegrass; it can seed restoration of future old- growth forests
while providing hope for the discovery of more forests with similar connections
to ancient times. Floracliff will also be the lead forest in the reconstruction
of regional environmental and human history. Its trees can help us answer
questions such as, "What was the climate like during the settlement
of Fort Boonesborough, Harrodsburg and Danville?" and "Were
there any large-scale disturbances in the forests of the Inner Bluegrass
region during the last 300 years?" The rare old trees of Floracliff
will reveal important slivers of historical Fayette County ecology
slivers which will allow us to ponder and construct plans for a more sensible
and hopeful future environment.
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