Rhode Island's Old Growth Beech Forest

(Portsmouth, RI) –

Rhode Island's Old Growth Beech Forest

Oakland Woods, Portsmouth, Rhode Island

Just a 15-minute drive from Newport's mansions is Oakland Woods, a 20-acre patch of forest dominated by American beech (Fagus grandifolia), with lesser components of white oak (Quercus alba) and yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis). Purchased by the Aquidneck Island Land Trust in January 2000, the forest is recognized as Rhode Island's only old growth forest, with some trees close to 300 years in age. This is merit enough to protect this remnant example of coastal forest, but Oakland Woods offers even more:

  • It is an important part of the watershed for Saint Mary's pond, a nearby public drinking water supply reservoir for Newport.
  • It was part of a much larger equestrian estate owned by the Vanderbuilt family from the late 1800's to 1940. (The only lasting evidence of this on-site is a portion of a former carriage road lined with 100-year old rhododendrons.)
  • It is ecologically significant because it appears to be resistant to beech decline, a disease that was accidentally introduced into the United States in the late 19th century and has devastated the beech forests of the eastern United States. Beech decline involves a scale insect (which in itself does not seem to affect the tree's health) and a fungus called Nectria coccinea faginata (which is the cause of the disfigurement and death of large trees). The scale insect populations consist only of females, which are wingless and covered by white, wool-like threads. The immature scale insects (known as crawlers) are dispersed by the wind, and are typically found in small concentrations in bark crevices. In peak years, however, the insects can cover the trunks like a woolly blanket. The insect uses its sucking mouthpart to feed off the rich inner bark (cambium) of large beeches. In the process, it transfers the fungus, which--at present--can't be controlled once it has infected the tree. What's puzzling to forest ecologists is that, although the scale insects are present in Oakland Woods, none of the beeches exhibit the symptoms of beech decline (bark cankers, death). This may be due to their isolation (which is unlikely) or the possibility that the trees are genetically resistant. Because beech routinely reproduce through root shoots, it is possible to extend genetic resistance over multiple generations.
  • Also of interest in Oakland Woods is the lack of non-native plants. Most coastal forests in Rhode Island (and elsewhere in southern New England) are now overrun with invasive non-native plants such as multiflora rose, Asiatic bittersweet and Japanese honeysuckle. Although some invasive plant species are found around the perimeter of the forest, the interior of Oakland Woods remains virtually exotic-species free and has an open, inviting feel. The low number of non-native plants may be the result of the deep shade cast by the beech and other canopy species.
  • Finally, as the only remaining example of old growth, coastal beech forest, Oakland Woods is valuable to scientists. It provides a window into the past--this is what the coastal forests looked like that greeted the first Europeans. Oakland Woods can help scientists understand how these forests functioned, with respect to climate changes, nutrient cycling, and what their value was and is as habitat.

The long-term protection of Oakland Woods is thanks to the community--neighbors, conservationists, businesses, state agencies and, last but not least, the Aquidneck Island Land Trust. Of the hundreds of people who were involved, two people stand out because they were instrumental in bringing all of these other parties together: Matthew Largess, a Jamestown arborist who first recognized the forest's unique qualities, and Eleanor Kinney, a marine biologist and Jamestown resident who, from her first visit, believed that the land would never be developed. Thanks to them, we can enjoy this special natural area.

Oakland Woods is open to the public. The Oakland Woods interpretive loop trail was officially opened in December 2001. There is no charge. For more information about conducting research in the forest or land protection efforts in the area, contact the Aquidneck Island Land Trust.

Directions to Oakland Woods, Portsmouth, Rhode Island

From the Newport Bridge:

  • Take East Main Road (Route 138 north) to Union Street. Take a left on Union Street, then take the first left on Carriage Drive. Proceed through the subdivision to the bottom of Carriage Drive. The small parking lot is on the left. Park here.

  • From the North (Bristol and Mount Hope Bridges): Take the Mount Hope or Sakonnet River bridges to Route 138. Go South on Route 138. Take a right on Union Street and the first left on Carriage Drive. Proceed through the subdivision to the bottom of Carriage Drive. The small parking lot is on the left. Park here.