Learning From the Past – Rhode Island Forest History

Prior to European settlement, Rhode Island’s landscape looked very different. About 95% of the state was forested, and Native Americans managed the woodlands with fire to favor certain species, clear the undergrowth, and create edge habitat for wildlife.  Clearing was also done for hunting and agriculture, predominantly in the Narragansett Bay. The land was a source of food and materials for everyday living. A major food resource was the American chestnut tree, a species that has since been stricken from its dominant overstory presence due to an introduced disease.

When settlers arrived, the forest was quickly converted to agricultural land, leaving only 31% of the state forested by 1767. Technological advances in logging equipment during the 1800s brought Rhode Island’s forests to their lowest point, both in area and quality, but the Industrial Revolution also led to farm abandonment and forest regrowth. Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the Forest Service, sparked a new awareness about forest resource conservation in the early 1900s, which marked the start of a new era.

The Rhode Island Forest Commission was formed in 1906, with Jesse B. Mowry appointed as its first commissioner. In 1907, Mowry penned the following in regard to Rhode Island’s forests:

It is a fact well known to most of you that the timber which once covered our hillsides, ameliorating our climate, beautifying the landscape, protecting the watersheds, and constituting one of the most valuable natural resources of the state, has now nearly all disappeared before the woodsman’s axe. It follows, therefore, that the protection and rapid growth of the succession of sprout and seedlings is a problem of interest and importance to the people.

Mowry went on to improve forest law, fire suppression, and management techniques within the state. The Civilian Conservation Corps reinforced the commission’s infrastructure throughout the 1930s, and the first forest reserve was established in 1932 – George Washington Memorial Forest.

The hurricane of 1938 and subsequent widespread forest fires were extremely destructive to Rhode Island Forests, but have shaped the forests we have today – a landscape dominated by white pine gave way for a wide diversity of hardwood and softwood species.

Today, the average tree size has increased in Rhode Island, and forest cover is up to around 60%. Insects, diseases, and weather phenomena have influenced forest successional patterns, but the biggest threat to our forests is now development and urban sprawl because they restrict new growth and regeneration.


For more information about Rhode Island Forest History, click here.