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Indigenous Ecological Knowledge for Agroforestry Practices in New England

Michael Culbertson


Archeological and anthropological evidence reveals unique Native American approaches to managed production in New England (Foster, 2008), California (Anderson, 2013), and the Amazon basin (Levis, 2017). However, there is little experimentation and research on the potential for modern iterations of these systems in New England. “Despite a long history of archaeological, historical, and paleoecological research, many fundamental questions remain regarding the activities of pre-European peoples.” (Foster, 2008). In addition, there is debate over some practices like burning in this region (Foster, 2020, Spur & Barnes, 1973).

This project adapts Native American management values into innovative practices for modern agroforestry in New England. It performs research to determine analogous methods and conducts field manipulation to measure potential practical feasibility, economic viability, ecological factors, and cultural benefits. It then uses this data to design and distribute useful information on improved practices in the region.


This could have important results for ecology, farming, and culture. Industry and state standards still focus predominantly on timber production versus cleared agricultural land. Researchers have outlined four potential management options  (Foster, 2008). However, none of them adequately describe Native American approaches to natural resource management.


Sources indicate that the wealth of forests in New England was enormous (Cronon, 1983; Russell, 1976, Foster 2008). These forests were significantly reduced in a “two-century period of deforestation and agrarian expansion” (Foster, 2008). However, “Millions of acres of former farmland are now covered by forest.” (DeGraaf, 2006). Connecticut alone had 1,763,459 acres of forest in 2020 (USDA Forest Service, 2020). This presents a powerful opportunity to expand pre-settlement values into modern practices across the region to create widespread improvements.


A recent study reiterated: “hunting, fishing, plant gathering and small-scale farming... apparently resulted in local ecological impacts without transforming the broader forested landscape.” (Foster, 2020, p. 243). And: “In regions like New England, land managers seeking to emulate pre-contact conditions should take advantage of the naturally reforested landscape, de-emphasize the role of human disturbance and anticipate climate-driven change...” (Foster, 2020). Therefore, Native American approaches to production may help us better utilize our forested landscape.


Supports indigenous culture and communities

Develops new forms of agroforestry techniques

Increases ecological basis for industry practices

Opportunity for university outreach


The terms of the project are positive, forward thinking, cooperative, and productive.

This is a small part of a more extensive document with further research, details, and analysis.


Cronon, W. (1983). Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England. Hills and Wang.

DeGraaf, R., Yamasaki, M., Leak, William B., Lester, Anna M. (2006). Technical Guide to Forest Wildlife Habitat Management in New England. University of Vermont Press.

Foster, D. R., Donahue, B., Kittredge, D., Motzkin, G., Hall, B., Turner, B., & Chilton, E. S. (2008). New England's forest landscape: Ecological legacies and conservation patterns shaped by agrarian history. Agrarian Landscapes in Transition: Comparisons of Long-Term Ecological and Cultural Change, pp. 44-88.


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