Text and photos by TYSON BOTTENUS/ecoRI News contributor
NARRAGANSETT — Whale Rock Trail cuts through the dense shrubbery and wetlands of the 112-acre Whale Rock property. Two years ago, The Nature Conservancy bought 66 acres of the parcel to protect it from further shoreline development. Last Saturday, the conservancy celebrated the official opening of the half-mile trail off Old Boston Neck Road. A few dozen people broke in the new trail, which had been in construction since the beginning of last summer.
Terry Sullivan, director of the Rhode Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy, reminded everyone in attendance that the Whale Rock preservation project is only past the first two phases. To complete the next phase, The Nature Conservancy will need to raise about $900,000 to buy the next 18-acre plot. Phases IV and V are scheduled to be protected by 2014 and 2015, he said.
Whale Rock Preserve is one of the largest shoreline regions in Rhode Island yet to be developed.
“You can see that there’s just a lot of great habitat in there,” Sullivan said. “We’d really like to get this project protected.”
After the initial purchase, The Nature Conservancy pledged to work with the town of Narragansett to provide shoreline access to the public. Permits were granted to build bridges over vital wetlands that the trail cuts through. Funding was allocated by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and several other partners to buy the materials needed to build the bridges.
Sullivan said this area needs to remain undeveloped in order to preserve habitat for migratory songbirds. Beginning at the end of August and going through October, birds use overgrown areas such as Whale Rock Preserve to rest and refuel before continuing their migration south to central South America and the Caribbean.
“Those songbirds will drop into this shrub and gorge themselves like we did (Thursday),” Sullivan said. “It’s like a Thanksgiving buffet all the time in here.”
Walking along the trail, one could see fleshy, bright-red winterberries stand starkly out from the undergrowth. Toxic to humans, winterberries are a common staple for catbirds, robins, mockingbirds, eastern bluebirds and cedar waxwings.
Further development, Sullivan said, would lessen the water quality of the Narrow River and ultimately Narragansett Town Beach, both of which are adjacent to Whale Rock.
“We’d like to keep this river as healthy as possible for all the people who enjoy the beaches here and for the economies the beach supports,” Sullivan said.
“I love that you guys are using it,” beamed Cheryl Wiitala, stewardship manager for The Nature Conservancy. “About almost every day we’ve been working on the trail here we’ve had fishermen come up and use it, along with folks like you guys. It’s great that word has gotten out around the neighborhood.”
While the number of public access spots has remained steady in the state at 220, the General Assembly has set a goal of identifying at least one public right-of-way for each mile of shoreline. With the opening of the Whale Rock Trail, more of Rhode island’s vast coastline has been opened for public use.
“We all have the right to walk along the beach,” said Brian Dever, a neighborhood resident who participated on the Nov. 30 hike. “But if you have no access to it, then what’s the point?”