Larson receives $76,000 research grant

September 8, 2016
Dr. Evan Larson

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Dr. Evan Larson, associate professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, was recently awarded a $76,270 grant from the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. The NSF is a federal agency that promotes the progress of science and serves as one of the primary and most competitive sources of support for fundamental research across all fields of science. Larson’s grant is specifically funded through two programs at NSF, the Geography and Spatial Sciences program and the Archaeology program, suggestive of the interdisciplinary nature of Larson’s research.

The project, “Documenting Ojibwe Land Use Through Tree-Ring Analysis of Culturally Modified Trees in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness,” will be led by Larson and includes support for two undergraduate student researchers and Tom Wilding, a research specialist in the Tree-Ring, Earth, and Environmental Sciences Laboratory. The project will span the summer of 2016 through November 2017 and will include multiple field excursions to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in collaboration with United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service archaeologists, as well as serving as the focus of a guided research course taught by Larson.

The goal of the research is to advance understanding about the interplay between people and the natural environment to further understand what factors led to the development of current landscape patterns. Through this work, Larson and his team are helping to redefine the meaning of wilderness to more completely integrate the influences of people in what are often considered “pristine” environments.

“The generous grant that Dr. Larson recently received from the National Science Foundation for his research in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will provide the undergraduate research students with an extraordinary hands-on, experiential learning opportunity as well as enable them to be a part of ground-breaking research that could hold implications for the management of protected areas across our country,” said Dr. Melissa Gormley, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Education at UW-Platteville. “Dr. Larson’s work is critical in helping us provide an outstanding education for our students.”

Larson and his team will be documenting the location of culturally modified trees, or trees that were intentionally scarred by people for utilitarian purposes, across the BWCAW. They will then use dendrochronology, the science of tree rings, to determine the exact year that the trees were scarred in order to determine specific places and times where pre-European settlement land use occurred.

This information will then be used in conjunction with a network of sites with fire history information that spans the past 400 years Larson developed with colleagues at the University of Minnesota, thereby enabling the determination of how past Ojibwe land use influenced patterns of fire activity and forest development in a modern wilderness area. The research will provide the first absolutely-dated and spatially-precise record of fur trade-era Ojibwe land use in the Great Lakes region and will hold important implications for the management of protected areas across the country.

“The idea of wilderness is a complicated concept that means a lot of things to different people,” said Larson. “This project will provide a quantitative basis for understanding the impacts that people had in specific places and specific times, and how in some cases the legacies of these impacts have helped create places that we associate with pristine nature. Recognizing the integration of people and environment can blur the distinction between what is ‘natural’ and ‘human’ in a way that facilities mindful and ecologically sound management and restoration. Involving students in the pursuit of these insights is a tremendous opportunity to provide the high-impact educational opportunities made available through undergraduate research.”

The investigators will actively collaborate with Native American tribal resource managers and will conduct outreach activities for sharing outcomes with land-resource management communities and the general public.

Larson noted that enhancing knowledge about the extent of human influence on fire regimes of past millennia has important implications for the understanding and management of fire-adapted vegetation communities in the United States and around the world. “Information gained from the rings of bark-peeled pine can provide a compelling context of land use to inform our understanding of wilderness,” he said. “The results of this work will establish a new understanding of the role of people in the pre-European landscape that will help guide future research and management in the Great Lakes Region and throughout temperate forest regions of the world.”

Written by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191,


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