Reconstructing Historical Forest Cover and Land Use Dynamics in the Northeastern United States Using Geospatial Analysis and Airborne LiDAR
The northeastern United States experienced extensive deforestation during the seventeenth through twentieth centuries primarily for European agriculture, which peaked in the mid-nineteenth century, and followed by widespread farmstead abandonment and reforestation. Analysis of airborne light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data has revealed thousands of historical land-use features with topographic signatures across the landscape under the region’s now-dense forest canopy. This study investigates two different types of features—stone walls and relict charcoal hearths—both of which are associated with widespread deforestation in the region. Our results demonstrate that LiDAR is an effective tool in reconstructing and quantifying the distribution and magnitude of historical forest cover using these relict land use features as a reliable proxy. Furthermore, these methods allow for direct quantification of cumulative land clearing over time in each town, in addition to the extent, intensity, and spatial distribution of cleared land and forest cover.