We may not know what prompted the Lorax to speak
for the trees, but Matthew Largess recalls his own
epiphany clearly. A cut-and-dry tree feller in July, 1998,
he visited a property on Rhode Island’s Aquidneck Island
for a routine estimate. A contractor was set to develop
a 40-acre Portsmouth tract and was seeking the
lowest clear-cut bid. On walking in, though, Largess’s
outlook would change forever and New England would
be spared the loss of one more shred of climax forest.
“It happened that quick,” Largess said. “My life
pivoted. I was walking through a 20-acre Rembrandt
and knew it. No one believed me but I knew those were
old-growth trees, 300 years or more. They had to be
saved. Since then I went from a guy who drops trees to
one who does what he can to save them.”
A remnant of a long-standing gentleman’s farm
owned by, among others, William Ellery Channing and
the Vanderbilts, the Oakland Forest is small, even by
heavily-fragmented southern New England standards.
Now a 30-acre Aquidneck Land Trust holding, only two-thirds are
wooded, but quality and rarity far outstrip quantity.
Though it remains unknown if the land was cleared during original
settlement, these 20 acres have undoubtedly gone uncut since, somehow surviving centuries of firewood-hungry winters. The property’s
status as a non-working parcel certainly helped even into the 20th
century, where charcoal demand saw countless New England trees
come down. Though the terms ‘virgin’ and ‘old growth’ can ignite
debate among foresters, by any definition Oakland has beat the odds
to achieve climax status.
“It’s the closest we have of knowing what sort of forest the Natives
moved through,” said Carol Trocki, a local conservation biologist, adding that
shade-tolerant American beech becomes dominant in island woodlands if
forests are allowed to mature, certainly the case in Oakland.
“Beech is actually relatively rare in southern New England because of
drought sensitivity,” said Dr. Charles Canham, who wrote Oakland’s original
forestry assessment and was among the first to validate Largess’ observa-
tions regarding the stand’s longevity. “Most of Rhode Island was likely oak-
dominant prior to settlement, but with fire suppression they’re giving way to
more mesic species like sugar maple.”
The islands, though, are different. While sugar maple and other dominants
like yellow birch and oak are well-represented, beech still rules Oakland’s
canopy. At the mouth of Narragansett Bay, Aquidneck Island is less prone
to drought than much of southern New England, in part because of its
persistent summer fogs. The effect is similar to what’s found in the Pacific
Northwest, where ocean-derived mists provide moisture during rainless
spells; in Aquidneck’s case, this niche favors beeches.
Something else favors Oakland’s beeches, as well: the lack of beech scale.
Why the European import is absent remains a mystery, but two theories
compete. Oakland, for one, is isolated among cropland and suburbia,
[ CONSERVATION ]
Island’s Oakland Forest
making it possible that scale simply hasn’t found its way yet. Immunity,
though, is additionally plausible. The aged beeches may have developed
resistance, either to the scale insect itself or the tree-killing fungus that
follows, making these trees of great interest to foresters addressing beech
bark disease elsewhere.
Fortunately, these trees can now be studied in peace alongside ordinary
citizens simply enjoying a walk beneath what the region’s canopy once
looked like. Once Largess recognized Oakland’s value, he spread the word
and preservation was set in motion, a process completed in March 2000.
“I contacted Eleanor Kenney of the Aquidneck Land Trust,” he said. “She
was motivated and well-connected, and [in the year 2000] they purchased
the property for $1.5 million.”
Thanks to Largess’ change of heart and the concerted efforts of others,
Oakland’s integrity has been ensured.
With 20 wooded acres that have gone uncut for hundreds of
years, Oakland Forest stands out in the coastal Rhode Island landscape.