Rhode Island is the second most densely populated state in the country, yet 60 percent of its land is forested. Woodlands, with their thick growth of trees and understory shrubs and other low vegetation, cover more than 400,000 acres.
It wasn't always so. The sylvan acres that greeted Rhode Island's settlers were aggressively cleared for agricultural and urban use. By the mid-1700s, more than 69 percent of the state's deciduous, hardwood forest had been converted to farmland. Interestingly, it was the Industrial Revolution, not planned conservation, that sowed the seeds of reforestation. Agricultural fields and orchards abandoned to the economic changes of the industrial age were overtaken first by grasses, then by low-growing shrubs and shrubby trees, and by thickets of mixed species. In time, a "pioneer" tree species took root. In upland areas, the pioneer species was usually pine; eventually, the pine stand was shaded out by deciduous trees of the self-maintaining, or climax, forest. In coastal areas, pine outcompeted hardwoods as the climax species. This process of succession restored 30 percent of lost woodlands and continues in various stages throughout the state.
Virtually all Rhode Island's woodlands are second-growth forests, regenerated primarily from abandoned agricultural sites. Forests are most prevalent in the western part of the state, where communities such as Glocester and West Greenwich are more than 80 percent woodland.
In these upland areas, deciduous treesthose that lose their leaves at the end of each growing seasonthrive. More than half the state's forests are deciduous, consisting of hardwoods such as oaks, maples, hickories, and birches. The less-plentiful but more flexible conifers, or evergreens, grow not only in the well-drained uplands, but also in sandier lowlands and the spongy soils of swamps. White pine, the most common of these softwoods, was the predominant south coastal species until forest fires began ravaging reverting farmland and diminished the pine's seed source. Today, white pine is again gaining prominence in coastal areas. Other common conifers include pitch pine, black spruce, Atlantic white cedar, and hemlock.
Altogether, about 2,000 species of plants have been identified in Rhode Island, and the forest floor offers an abundance of them: mountain laurel, azalea, and viburnum, along with berry bushes of all kinds, such as blackberry, blueberry, and huckleberry. Numerous ferns, club mosses, fungi, and lichens flourish beneath the forest canopy, and wildflowers, such as wood lily and pink lady's slipper, sprout throughout.
This rich environment supports scores of animal species, including more than 100 bird species. Along with familiar chipmunk, squirrel, cottontail, raccoon, skunk, and mink may be the rare bobcat. Deer, the largest game animal now found in Rhode Island, are abundant. Among woodland birds, warblers, thrushes, and woodpeckers abound, along with wild turkey, owls, and cuckoos.
This article first appeared in A Guide to Rhode Island's Natural Places.
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