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Historical distributions of 31 tree species, chaparral, and coastal sage scrub described by Spanish land explorers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (1769–1806) and in land grant diseños (1784–1846) are reconstructed at 634 localities across central and southern California. This baseline predates most formal botanical surveys by nearly a century, allowing for assessment of vegetation change over the broadest time frame for comparison with pre-historical evidences and future distributions. Spanish accounts are compared with historical sources in the Mexican era (1821–1848), American settlement (1848–1929), and modern range maps of the 1929–1934 Vegetation Type Map (VTM) survey. Among tree species that were recorded in Spanish explorations, the site-specific localities are consistent with VTM maps at the spatial resolution of the land expeditions. In contrast with massive deforestation across eastern North America since European colonization, hardwood and conifer forests in California sustained inconsequential cutting during Hispanic settlement. Spanish accounts and Mexican diseños occasionally provide remarkable detail of fine-scale distributions which have not changed over the past two centuries, including Pinus radiata forest at Cambria and Monterey, the eastern limit of Quercus lobata and Q. agrifolia woodlands with Aesculus californica in the Salinas Valley, as well as isolated stands of Cupressus macrocarpa and C. sargentii. Disjunct occurrences of trees in southern California were recorded at the same places they occur today, including an isolated grove of Q. engelmannii at the Baldwin Park Arboretum, and the Pinus coulteri stand in the mountains above Santa Barbara. The southern margin of mixed conifer forest in the San Bernardino Mountains has remained on the crest of the range since Garcés’ account in 1776. Long-term tree distributions are evaluated with respect to land use, grazing and climate change. We advocate the use of historical records as proxy data for climate change studies.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.