This project elucidates the historical ecology of Onondaga Lake, Syracuse, NY, and adjacent lands in order to improve decision-making on lake restoration. Considered sacred to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people, Onondaga Lake is now one of the most severely degraded lakes in the nation. It was subject to a long list of dramatic insults beginning with dumping of salt waste and sewage in the early 1800s. The project has three components: to characterize plant communities around Onondaga Lake before major industrialization (1825); to examine cultural practices that shaped those communities during this time; and finally, to draw on this ecocultural history to inform and guide current restoration actions. Historical ecology data inform the discussion of Onondaga Lake restoration by highlighting reference conditions both ecological and cultural. We began with a “deep time” perspective, combining palynological and archaeological data to shed light on changes in climate, vegetation, and human presence. For a historical time frame, we researched old maps, texts, newspapers, florae, theses, ethnographic literature and other documents to compile plant species lists and notes on human-plant relationships.
We developed a series of 14 plant community templates for use in restoring sites around Onondaga Lake. Based on journal entries as well as collected specimens, we also compiled a list of nearly 200 plants recorded in the Onondaga Lake region by botanist Frederick Pursh in 1807. The Onondaga Lake area was rich in resources, including fish, vegetation, soils (for crops), and wildlife (hunting). The archaeological record points to a long (thousands of years) and stable indigenous tenure with sites clustered around Onondaga Lake and along major river corridors adjacent to the lake. Native subsistence related to forest resource procurement included active and passive management practices such as use of fire, plant dispersal, tree and bark harvest, village relocation, and possibly intentional transplants of beaver. These historical findings related to a major Superfund site and its biota challenge “shifting baselines” perspectives in terms of our understanding of ecosystem potential and even lake remediation standards. Results point to a long-term sustainable human tenure and provide a model for healing our relationship with the lake. We have already started to incorporate these findings into educational tools to begin to shift community perception of the lake from industrial to ecocultural landscape.