Journal Article

Quantifying Historic Human Impacts on Forest Environments: A Case Study in Białowieża Forest, Poland

Tomasz Samojlik, Ian D. Rotherham and Bogumiła Jędrzejewska

in Environmental History

Published on behalf of American Society for Environmental History and Forest History Society

Volume 18, issue 3, pages 576-602
Published in print July 2013 | ISSN: 1084-5453
Published online April 2013 | e-ISSN: 1930-8892 | DOI:
Quantifying Historic Human Impacts on Forest Environments: A Case Study in Białowieża Forest, Poland

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  • Environmental History
  • Contemporary History (Post 1945)


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Environmental history uses historical sources to analyze past anthropogenic changes in the environment. However, using historical data to quantify environmental impacts continues to be controversial. We propose a conceptual framework enabling more effective use of historical sources. We develop a case study that estimates anthropogenic disturbance over 1,800 years in Białowieża Forest, Poland, Europe's last primeval lowland forest. We use three types of information sources: field surveys, archaeological excavations, and historical documents. To estimate the strength and durability of human impacts, we selected an area of 200 square kilometers in the center of the forest that includes both protected and disturbed areas. We developed measures to quantify deforestation and associated reductions in “naturalness.” We find that by the end of the eighteenth century, 9.5 percent of the selected area was entirely deforested, 33.5 percent was moderately or strongly changed, and about 57 percent remained almost untouched. The estimated naturalness declined from 73.5 to 54.5 percent over the course of the eighteenth century. While Białowieża Forest is a unique location, we argue that our model could be useful in other forest landscapes.

Journal Article.  9212 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Environmental History ; Contemporary History (Post 1945)

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