De Selm Papers

De Selm Papers Project Description

The Natural Terrestrial Vegetation of Tennessee Project

Image of DeSelm Data Point Map

Map depicting samples sites across Tennessee.  Dots represent location of 1-3 stands sampled in Cumberland Plateau and west Tennessee.  In eastern Tennessee counties, numbers represent the total stands sampled.

Tennessee is the richest inland state in the nation in terms of biodiversity. The integrity of its diverse ecosystems, however, is threatened by many issues. Urban sprawl, exotic pests, and pollution are altering natural sites at an alarming rate. To protect Tennessee’s rich biological heritage, we need to understand its ecosystem structure and function. Restoring degraded habitats requires quantitative measurements of reference sites that best represent the ecological potential of the area. Unfortunately, the only comprehensive work on the natural terrestrial vegetation of Tennessee is not available to the organizations engaed in conservation and restoration efforts across the state.

Dr. Hal De Selm (deceased 7/12/2011) compiled the most comprehensive sample of the natural vegetation communities of Tennessee in existence. As a distinguished conservation biologist and professor of botany and ecology at the University of Tennessee, he was responsible for the conservation of some of Tennessee’s rarest ecosystems. In addition to his academic work, Dr. De Selm is perhaps best known among his friends and colleagues for his dedication to characterizing the natural heritage of Tennessee during his years of retirement. Dr. De Selm worked tirelessly to measure remnant vegetation communities across the state. He sampled over 3000 sites, primarily in old growth forests, but also in wetlands, floodplains, barrens, and glades. The body of his work occurred from 1956 – 2002 and he catalogued many reference sites that no longer exist in their natural state (e.g., conversion to development). Remarkably, this work was largely funded by Dr. De Selm and his wife with no external help. It was a labor of love. These data are a treasure to the state of Tennessee, as was he. 

Dr. De Selm envisioned using his data to compose an essential book: The Natural Terrestrial Vegetation of Tennessee, but his death kept him from realizing his dream. His data are only available as the original, hand-written field sheets and maps. The first step in condensing his vast collection of data into a publicly available book is to develop a database that could be queried and shared with all those who might use it for natural resource conservation. An established advisory board, consisting of representatives from Tennessee and federal agencies and housed in the University of Tennessee’s Tree Improvement Program (a 53 year-old research program) has already developed an initial project plan. After the database is complete, all data will be transferred to the Tennessee Department of Conservation, Natural Heritage Program. Currently, funding is being sought to continue the support of database development.