By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Centuries ago, Rhode Island lost most if not all of its rainforest to European colonization. Even though the state is home to some 700 trees, John Campanini Jr., director of the Rhode Island Tree Council, calls them “champions,” most of today’s mature or old-growth forests are only 75 to 100 years old.
The only way Rhode Island will have centuries-old forests again is to protect the remaining pockets of mature native trees, say those behind a bill introduced earlier this month.
The Old Growth Forest Preservation Act (H7066) would prohibit the cutting, timber harvesting or alteration of old growth forests, American beech forests, yellow birch forests, sugar maple forests, cedar forests Atlantic whites, black tupelo forests, American hornbeam forests and American forests. hop forests on state and municipal lands.
The bill was introduced by Rep. David Bennett, D-Warwick, and was largely drafted by Nathan Cornell, Rhode Island coordinator of the Old-Growth Forest Network.
The bill defines “old-growth forests” as forests that are at least 100 years old. This would require developers to search for old growth forests before any construction to ensure that no mature forests are destroyed.
The House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources held a hearing Jan. 27 on the Ancient Forest Preservation Act. Bennett is the chairman of the committee.
“It would protect the open space…it’s being consumed by development and we can all see that,” Bennett said. “There are vast tracts of land that are being turned into solar farms. That would put a stop to that.
Solar installations are “becoming a source of forest loss to meet Rhode Island’s clean energy goals,” according to the Rhode Island Forestry Action Plan 2020.
According to a 2019 report, an increase in ground-mounted solar projects has caused deforestation in rural areas of the state and raised serious community concerns about forest conservation.
“Between 2008 and 2017, the amount of electricity generated by solar power in Rhode Island increased 23-fold,” according to the 133-page report titled The Value of Rhode Island’s Forests. “This increase in solar power is critical to meeting the state’s climate change mitigation goals, and renewables are urgently needed to offset greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector. . Yet these installations on formerly forested land directly contrast the benefits of renewable energy with the myriad of benefits offered by forests.
Cornell testified at the hearing.
“When I started looking for ancient forests, I was told there were none left, that everything had been cut down by World War II,” he said. “However, I found pockets of old-growth forest everywhere. These forests are not common – less than 1% of our forests are fully developed old-growth forests – but they are there.
Cornell noted that he hollowed out several pre-Civil War trees. He said he found forests where the oaks were 12 feet in circumference.
“These ancient forests do exist, but they are at serious risk of being destroyed, even on public lands,” he said. “The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management [DEM] currently has no mechanism to identify and protect old growth forests on Crown lands.
In an interview with ecoRI News the day before the hearing, Cornell said that DEM and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had been accidentally destroying old-growth forests for decades because they did not recognize the existence of such trees. forests in Rhode Island.
He noted that pockets of old growth forest are found in Cranston, North Kingstown, Portsmouth, South Kingstown and Warwick, to name just a few places he identified. He said mature native forests ward off invasive species and anchor a strong, healthy ecosystem.
“Our ancient forests contain more carbon and have more plant and animal diversity than any other forest,” he said. “Allowing their destruction would cause this carbon to be released into the atmosphere as the pollution and habitats provided by these forests disappear.”
In a meeting with DEM in December, Cornell said he was told the US Forest Service was pressuring the agency to harvest more timber from state forests.
A DEM spokesperson acknowledged the agency’s meeting with Cornell, but noted that “its perception of the U.S. Forest Service is inaccurate.”
“One of our main points was, and is, that many Rhode Island forests are of equal age class — too many, in fact,” Michael Healey wrote in an email to ecoRI News. “We would have liked to harvest more actively in the recent past than resources allowed, because strategic harvesting – not clearcutting – helps foster healthier forests by diversifying the age class of species and trees. , recovering some species (e.g. oaks) affected by repeated defoliation caused by forest tent caterpillars and gypsy moth, creating a more hospitable habitat for wildlife, reducing fire risk and protecting the quality of the water.
In testimony submitted to the House committee, DEM said he was concerned the legislation would impede his “ability to effectively manage forests on state property in a way that benefits wildlife, recreational users and the overall health of our forest ecosystem”.
He also said the definition of old-growth forest “used in the legislation is not in line with best forestry practice”.
The Nature Conservancy testified that while “we support the general goals of this legislation…we respectfully request that this bill be held up for further study” so that the definition of old growth can be refined in a process that includes local experts, such as the Rhode Island Land Trust Council and DEM.
The Land Trust Council has also requested that the bill be held up for further study. The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns testified that the legislation presents challenges to municipalities that lack the resources to comply with new requirements regarding tree coring, tree species identification, sampling soils and surveying.
The founder and northeast regional director of the Maryland Ancient Forest Network testified in support of the bill.