By Steven L. Stephenson
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Extra resources for A Natural History of the Central Appalachians
However, there is every reason to believe that the Native Americans did have an appreciable influence on forest structure and composition in some localities. For example, they were known to have cleared small areas of forest for their villages and crops. Even more importantly, Native Americans used low-intensity fires to keep forests free of undergrowth, thus providing more suitable habitat for the game animals they hunted. Some scientists have speculated that their use of fire was widespread enough to have caused significant changes in certain types of forest communities.
The primary reason for this seems to be the smothering effect of the blanket of dead leaves that accumulates as a result of leaf fall. The dead leaves easily slide off the elevated substrates. When the various layers of vegetation in a forest dominated by conifers are compared with those of a forest dominated by broadleaf trees, major differences are apparent. For example, in a mature conifer-dominated forest the canopy layer is well developed, and the individual canopies closely intertwined. The dense shade cast by such a canopy often means that lower layers of vegetation show little diversity: the understory tree and sapling layers sometimes consists of only a few scattered individuals.
Woody vines are not very common in Central Appalachian forests. Grapevines, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy are the best known and widespread examples that one is likely to encounter. Grapevines are most abundant in forests that have been subjected to disturbance. They can reach a considerable size, with a stem diameter exceeding that of many small trees. Grapevines this large can easily extend throughout much of the crown of the tree that is supporting their growth, ultimately causing branches in the crown to break and, in extreme cases, killing the tree.
A Natural History of the Central Appalachians by Steven L. Stephenson