RICHMOND — The worst of the gypsy moth infestation may be over, but several years of defoliation, combined with other environmental factors, have devastated large swaths of oak forest in Rhode Island.
The Rhode Island Forest Conservators’ Organization, a nonprofit dedicated to the wise use and protection of the state’s forests, led a tour Thursday evening of one of the areas hardest hit by insect pests: the state-owned Hillsdale Preserve, formerly known as the DeCoppett estate, in Richmond.
The conservators’ organization was established 30 years ago to help private landowners maintain their forests. The group, which has 150 members, holds several forest walks a year that are open to the public.
As approximately 40 people gathered on Hillsdale Road before the tour, RIFCO President Dick Went described the threats to the upland oak ecosystem.
“This is an area that’s really been hit by a lot of problems over the years, including deer defoliation as well as the bugs that we’re getting now,” he said.
In addition to gypsy moths, the trees have also been attacked by forest tent caterpillars. Then there was drought. Deer pose a significant threat to the forest because they eat the tree seedlings, preventing understory regeneration.
The result is thousands of dead trees, which, in addition to providing fuel for wildfires, can fall on power lines or people.
“One of the big problems is, what do you do with all these dead trees?” Went said. “This happens to be a good place to see what a combination of problems does to a forested area.”
Richmond residents Carolyn Eldrige and Ken Johnson are not RIFCO members, but they wanted to learn more about what was happening in their local forests.
“I was an oceanographer, so I’m interested in this devastation that we see around us; I wanted to learn more about it,” Johnson said.
Gina Fuller, district manager of the Southern Conservation District, said she was hoping to learn more about what RIFCO describes as the collapse of the oak forest ecosystem.
“We’re partners with RIFCO, and it’s part of my job to coordinate the type of resources and events, let my network know, and it’s a way for me to educate myself on the issues in Rhode Island,” she said.
After a brief talk on the history of the property by retired University of Rhode Island professor James Brown, RIFCO Outreach Coordinator Marc Tremblay led the group to one of the trails into the forest. Once inside, everywhere the group turned were the tall, gray skeletons of dead oaks.
“What a shock, coming through here,” said Brown, who managed the forest on the DeCoppett property before it was given to the state.
Also walking the trail were Catherine Sparks, assistant director of the Bureau of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Management foresters William Walker and Fern Graves, and Paul Ricard, a senior biologist with the DEM’s Forest Health Program.
Walker explained that where oak mortality is high, the only solution is to remove the dead trees, although some will be left standing for wildlife.
“As a public land forester, I’m just trying to pick the low-hanging fruit,” Walker told the group. “To be honest, we have hundreds of acres of oak mortality here — huge fire risk, forest health risks, hazards when you’re on the trails. I’m just trying to get as many of these salvage operations done as possible.”
The state has solicited bids from timber companies, and the company with the highest bid will get to harvest the dead trees. The logging of the dead wood is expected to begin soon.
Ricard said gypsy moth damage varied widely throughout the state, with some areas, such as this Richmond forest, losing nearly all their oaks.
“Just like the defoliation, the mortality is different,” he said. “In some places, it’s like this; 80 percent mortality. In other places, there’s no mortality, so if you want to average it out over the state, I’m thinking we’re going to come out at somewhere between 10 and 20 percent mortality. But, in pockets, it’s going to be terrible.”
There will also be consequences for wildlife, which depend on acorns, but Ricard said the native birds and other animals would adapt.
“It’s certainly going to have a negative impact on all those populations,” Ricard said. “They’ll make do. They’ll probably not have twins as much, like the deer.”
The group paused in a clearing punctuated by dead oaks, most of which DEM foresters have marked with bright blue blazes indicating that they should be cut.
“I think it’s kind of clear what’s left and what the future forest is going to look like,” Tremblay said, looking around at the tree species that were still alive. “We’ve got black birch, we’ve got some scattered white pine, some sassafras, there must be some beech here and there.”
In forests where many oaks have died, the entire ecosystem is undergoing a dramatic transformation. Without the leafy canopy, the composition of the forest floor has also changed, with plants and shrubs replacing the duff. And the trees that remain will change the composition, and the feel, of the Rhode Island forest.