COVENTRY — As southern New England grapples with the demise of much of the oak canopy, a forestry group is holding a free workshop to discuss the problem and possible ways to address it.
The Rhode Island Forest Conservators’ Organization, a private, non-profit forest landowners’ group, will be hosting the half-day workshop on March 16 in Coventry. The program will be held in cooperation with the Rhode Island Tree Farm Program, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Forestry, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Rhode Island Conservation Districts and the Rhode Island Resource Conservation and Development Council.
Aerial surveys conducted through DEM have shown that while mortality varies from one area to another, approximately two-thirds of the oak trees in the state have died, the victims of gypsy moth defoliation. Richmond has been one of the hardest-hit communities, with hundreds of dead trees and a budget that is woefully inadequate to deal with them.
Conservation Commission Chair James Turek said many of the trees presented a public safety hazard.
“What do you do with these dead trees, particularly when they’re along town roads or in places where the public might be at some safety risk with direct exposure?” he said. “The other issue is, if we have a bunch of dead timber that’s standing, it would be material that ends up becoming a greater fire hazard, and we also want to consider that.”
Forest Conservators’ Outreach Coordinator Marc Tremblay said the workshop would begin with an overview presented by DEM Forest Health Specialist Paul Ricard, followed by a talk by noted Connecticut forest ecologist Jeffrey Ward.
“The workshop with Paul Ricard is the intro to sort of set the stage,” Tremblay said. “That’s why the keynote is Jeff Ward. He’s a forest ecologist so he’s going to talk about the evolution of what’s going to be happening down the road here from place to place, ranging from 10 percent to 100 percent of the oaks. What are things going to look like? What’s the deer population in your area? What’s the invasive plant problem your area and what’s the current status of the understory with the loss of the canopy? So it’s going to be more about what can landowners expect in 5, 10, 50, or even 100 years?”
Cathy Sparks, assistant director of the Rhode Island Bureau of Natural Resources, said the species that replace the oaks will vary according to forest habitat and seed availability.
“I would anticipate that we would get a lot of herbaceous growth at first. We would get, maybe, some raspberries, we would get blueberries. We might end up with some nice habitat in some areas for species of conservation need, and eventually it will fill in," she said. "There will probably be a lot of black birch and in some areas where there’s a seed source, American beech. There may be a lot of pine. So, it’s going to vary."
Tremblay said the natural process of forest succession is now complicated by other factors such as extreme weather, including high winds, flooding and droughts, and invasive species.
“You’ve got climate change factors, you’ve got invasive plant factors, you’ve got deer population factors that really have a major impact on how healthy and productive Rhode Island’s woodlands are going to be in the future,” he said.
“The target audience, of course, are those people that own the woodlots and also the people that work in the woods as to what can you do now and what state and federal programs might be available to help these landowners with things like firebreaks along the road sides to minimize the fire danger into the woods, hazard trees along your trails," Tremblay said. "Do you need new access trails because the understory has exploded and what you thought was a nice road a couple of years ago is now completely overgrown, because there’s so much sunlight coming into the woods and it’s exploded.”
Sparks said the workshop would offer both practical and scientific information.
“There will be information that’s delivered on a science scale and there’ll be information that’s delivered on a practical scale,” she said. “The Natural Resource Conservation Service has a lot of programs that forest landowners who have 10 acres or more can take advantage of…There’s a lot of potential for some great stewardship work to take place following up from this event.”
In Richmond, the Conservation Commission is working with Town Administrator Karen Pinch to come up with a forest management plan.
“We feel that it would be very important to get a forest management plan, a better understanding of how we would be managing town properties, but at the same time, emphasizing the need for private owners to be aware of good management practices on their own properties,” Turek said. “That’s what we’re trying to do as part of trying to address the substantial changes that are occurring with the tree die-off.”
The workshop take place on March 16 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Coventry Community Center, 1277 Main Street in Coventry. The program is free, but advance registration is requested. For more information, as well as a complete agenda, visit www.nricd.org.