Four centuries of forest clearance and regeneration in the hinterland of a large city



In the last 350 years, forests of eastern North America have experienced widespread clearance and regrowth with local variation in timing and extent determined by patterns of human land use. This paper describes the history of forest in the hinterland of a large city (Wilmington, Delaware) surrounded by fertile soils and having access to a navigable estuary. Forests were cleared between 1650 and 1780 to accommodate shifting cultivation of cereal crops and to provide fuelwood for nearby cities. Proximity to urban markets supported a vigorous agricultural economy through the 19th century and delayed widespread forest regeneration. Reforestation began on a large scale following the local decline of agriculture 1920–1940. In the late 20th century, forest competes for land with suburban housing. Although a similar sequence has occurred throughout eastern North America, the study area is unique in that a larger proportion of original forest was cleared and reforestation began much later than in other regions. Today, the history of land use is evident in the high proportion of young, successional forest and the very small area of long-established forest.