Debate About Definition of ‘Old-Growth Forest’ Leaves Imprint on Forest Protection Bill


An old-growth forest of mostly American beech trees in Portsmouth recently become the first in Rhode Island to be part of the national Old-Growth Forest Network. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Centuries ago, Rhode Island lost most if not all of its virgin forest to European settlement. Even though the state is home to some 700 trees Rhode Island Tree Council director John Campanini Jr. calls “champions,” most of today’s mature or old-growth forests are only 75 to 100 years old.

The only way Rhode Island will again have forests that are centuries old is to protect the pockets of mature, native trees that remain, say those behind a bill filed earlier this month.

The Old Growth Forest Preservation Act (H7066) would prohibit the cutting, timber harvesting or altering of old-growth forests, American beech forests, yellow birch forests, sugar maple forests, Atlantic white cedar forests, black tupelo forests, American hornbeam forests and American hophornbeam forests on state- and municipal-owned land.

The bill was introduced by Rep. David Bennett, D-Warwick, and was largely written by Nathan Cornell, Rhode Island co-coordinator of the Old-Growth Forest Network.

The bill defines “old-growth forests” as forests that are at least 100 years old. It would require developers to survey for old growth before any building takes place to ensure no mature forest is destroyed.

The House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources held a hearing Jan. 27 on the Old Growth Forest Preservation Act. Bennett is the committee’s chair.

“It would protect open space … it’s being consumed by development and we can all see that,” Bennett said. “There’s mass pieces of land that are being turned into solar farms. This would put a check on it.”

Solar installations “are becoming a source of forest loss to achieve Rhode Island’s clean energy goals,” according to the Rhode Island 2020 Forest Action Plan.

An increase in ground-mounted solar projects has caused deforestation in rural areas of the state and spurred significant community concern about forest conservation, according to a 2019 report.

“Between 2008 and 2017, there was a 23-fold increase in the amount of electricity generated by solar power in Rhode Island,” according to the 133-page report titled The Value of Rhode Island Forests. “This increase in solar power is central to meeting the state’s climate change mitigation goals, and renewable energy is urgently needed to offset greenhouse-gas emissions from the electricity sector. Yet, these installations on formerly forested land pit the benefits of renewable energy directly against the myriad benefits offered by forests.”

Cornell testified at the hearing.

“When I started searching for old-growth forests, I was told there was none left, that it was all cut down by World War II,” he said. “However, I’ve been finding pockets of old-growth forest all over the place. These forests aren’t common — less than 1 percent of our forests are fully developed old-growth — but they are there.”

Cornell noted he has cored multiple trees that predate the Civil War. He said he has found forests where oak trees are 12 feet in circumference.

“These old-growth forests do exist, but they are in serious danger of being destroyed — even on public land,” he said. “The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management [DEM] currently has no mechanism for identifying and protecting old-growth forest on state land.”

In an interview with ecoRI News a day before the hearing, Cornell said DEM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been destroying old-growth forests accidentally for decades because they don’t acknowledge such forests exist in Rhode Island.

He noted pockets of old-growth forest can be found in Cranston, North Kingstown, Portsmouth, South Kingstown and Warwick, to name a few places he has identified. He said mature, native forests keep invasives out and anchor a strong, healthy ecosystem.

“Our old-growth forests hold more carbon and have more plant and animal diversity than any other forest,” he said. “To allow the destruction of them would lead to that carbon being released into the atmosphere as pollution and the habitats those forests provide would be gone.”

In a meeting with DEM in December, Cornell said he was told the U.S. Forest Service is pressuring the agency to timber harvest more in state forests.

A DEM spokesperson acknowledged the agency’s meeting with Cornell, but noted “his perception about the US Forest Service is inaccurate.”

“One of our major points was, and is, that many Rhode Island forests are of an even age class — too many, in fact,” Michael Healey wrote in an email to ecoRI News. “We’d like to have harvested more actively in the recent past than resources allowed us to do because strategic harvesting — not clear-cutting — helps foster healthier forests by diversifying the age class of species and trees, salvaging certain species (e.g., oaks) affected by repeated defoliations from forest tent and gypsy moth caterpillars, creating more hospitable habitat for wildlife, reducing fire risk, and protecting water quality.”

In testimony submitted to the House committee, DEM said it is concerned the legislation would inhibit its “ability to effectively manage forests located on state property in a manner that benefits wildlife, recreational users, and the overall health of our forest ecosystem.”

It also said the definition of old-growth forest “used in the legislation is not consistent with forestry best practices.”

The Nature Conservancy testified that while “we support the overall goals of this legislation … we respectfully request that this bill is held for further study” so the definition of old-growth forest can be refined in a process that includes local experts, such as the Rhode Island Land Trust Council and DEM.

The Land Trust Council also asked that the bill be held for further study. The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns testified the legislation presents challenges to municipalities that do not have the resources to comply with the new requirements regarding tree coring, tree species identification, soil sampling and land surveying.

The founder and the Northeast regional manager for the Maryland-based Old-Growth Forest Network testified in favor of the bill.

Cornell, a member of the Warwick Land Trust Committee, believes old-growth forests need to be left alone. Timber harvesting, he said, damages their ecological value.

To identify Rhode Island’s remaining old-growth forests, Cornell and Rachel Briggs, his fellow coordinator of the Old-Growth Forest Network, are creating a nonprofit to oversee the initiative. The Old Growth Tree Society will organize the mapping of old-growth forests, advocate for legislation to protect them, work with landowners to keep their mature forests protected from timber harvesting and educate the public on the importance of these woodlands.

He told the committee some 40 people have expressed interest in helping map the state’s old-growth forests.

Campanini, the longtime director of the Rhode Island Tree Council, said the state’s grandest trees — those with significant trunks, majestically tall and with impressive crown spreads — account for only a small percentage of the state’s canopy cover.

He said he supports any bill that brings awareness to the importance of forests. He agreed that Rhode Island needs to develop a mapping system for its forests. And since some 70 percent of forests in the state are on private land, he said any initiative for further protections needs to include landowners.

“We need a comprehensive plan for forest protection,” Campanini said. “Look at what we did for Narragansett Bay. We need a similar approach with our forests.”

He is hoping the state Forest Conservation Act (H5760 and S0470) approved last year will address these issues and create a system that better protects Rhode Island’s forestland, both private and public.

The law’s intent is to help landowners conserve forests in perpetuity, encourage better forest management, promote forest conservation as a means to mitigate climate change, create jobs in the forest products industry, and expand urban and community forestry programs.

The act also establishes a Forest Conservation Commission. The commission is to consist of the DEM and Department of Administration directors, or their respective designees, and nine public members to be appointed by the DEM director.

Healey said the agency is in the process of constituting the Forest Conservation Commission and “we hope to hold the first meeting in March.” He said DEM will soon be sending a list of commission members to the secretary of state’s office.


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