Nathan Cornell considers it the finest stand of beeches in Rhode Island.
“They look really impressive this time of year because the leaves turn a metallic, coppery-gold color that stands out against the white bark,” he explains, motioning towards a grove of the old-growth forest near the Community College of Rhode Island. Fog billows eerily from a swamp behind the grove, tracing a frosty rime upon trees which were ancient when the Knight Campus was still the Knight Estate.
“They’re 200 years old, at the very least,” Cornell says. “There are a few trees in here that are probably closer to 300.”
It’s rare to find trees of such an advanced age in Rhode Island, where most forests are less than a century old. That’s part of the reason Cornell is working so hard to track them.
The Warwick native and local Lorax is one of the co-founders of the RI Old Growth Tree Society, a non-profit dedicated to “locating, documenting, and advocating” for the oldest terrestrial ecosystems in our state. He says the last of these is by far the most critical.
“We currently don’t have any legal protections for forests like this,” he said of the six acres nestled between CCRI and the campus of Kent Hospital. “At least, none that are being utilized.”
According to Cornell, the General Assembly gave the DEM the authority to create protected zones in the Natural Areas Protection Act of 1993. Areas which were identified as ecologically significant, including old-growth forests, would be protected from future development. In the three decades since the law was passed, however, the agency does not appear to have ever used it.
“The Protection Act is still on the books,” Cornell said. “We just want it to be used to protect these rare environments.”
Although the Department of Environmental Management estimates that forests cover as much as 59% of the state’s land area, the overwhelming majority of these are second-growth, having sprung up on abandoned farmland reclaimed by trees after the state’s economy turned away from agriculture in the mid-19th Century.
The differences between primeval and modern forests isn’t merely historical, however.
“This is an ecologically unique place,” Cornell explains. “The ecosystem here has been preserved intact since before European settlers arrived. It’s a totally different forest than the kind that we’re used to now, but this is what the entire region would have looked like a few centuries ago.”
Compared to Rhode Island’s modern woodlands, these primeval forests feature a heavier canopy and decreased undergrowth. “The older trees grow taller and block light from reaching the forest floor, so you won’t find much in terms of briers and vines.” The ancient ecosystems also lack many of the invasive species common throughout the rest of the state. “You won’t find many worms in old-growth forests,” Cornell says. “Many people don’t realize that the majority of worms in North America were introduced from Europe.”
More importantly, their isolation has given these forests a chance to avoid potentially catastrophic diseases. The reason that the leaves on that stand of beeches still gleam like copper foil is because the trees appear to have been spared from the spread of beech leaf disease, which ravaged Rhode Island’s forests over the summer.
Cornell has explored most of those forests, searching for old-growth trees and thickets. His organization is affiliated with the Old Growth Forest Network, a growing directory of primeval woodlands throughout the country. So far, only one old-growth forest in Rhode Island is officially registered in the OGFN: Oakland Forest in Portsmouth.
“It was part of the grounds of a former Vanderbilt estate, which was what ended up keeping it protected,” Cornell says. “It’s really common in New England to find ancient forests that survived because they were part of some private estate.”
A similar backstory likely explains the survival of the forest near CCRI: the Knight family maintained extensive farmlands and natural preserves throughout the area which now makes up the Rhode Island Mall and highway connector.
It’s more difficult to determine how another local forest discovered by Cornell might have escaped development.
There’s a beech forest in between the Pontiac Mill complex property and the Airport Connector to Route 95. “It’s really difficult to access, but you can see it from the highway entrance ramp,” he says.
Both of these locations are among the six forests which Cornell’s organization has requested be declared Natural Area Preserves. Also on the list are Warwick’s Dawley Farm and a section of Cranston’s John L. Curran State Park.
“The forest in Curran Park isn’t quite as old as this one,” Cornell says, leaning on a massive tree topped by the “stag antler” branches typical of old-growth oaks. “Most of the trees there are probably between 100 and 150 years old. But they have a really incredible diversity: beeches, birches, oaks, sassafras, hornbeams, and way more. And of course, that attracts all of the animals that like those trees.”
Some of the areas which the Old Growth Tree Society has requested protection for are actively being logged, such as the Great Swamp Management Area in South Kingstown.
“A lot of people hear ‘management’ and they assume that means its being protected,” he says. “They don’t realize that ‘management’ usually means ‘logging.’”
A bill, which Cornell helped to author is expected to be introduced by Warwick Rep Evan Shanley later this month to mandate that identified old-growth forests be accorded the designation of Natural Area Preserve, together with updates for the 30 year old provision to save these woodland treasures.
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