By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Despite being the second-most densely populated state, with 1,022 people per square mile — only New Jersey is more crowded — Rhode Island is nearly 60 percent forested. That fact is further obscured by the Ocean State’s 400 miles of renowned coastline.
While Narragansett Bay and the rest of the state’s coastal waters play a celebrated role in the local economy, so too do Rhode Island’s 400,000 acres of forestland, of which about 70 percent is privately owned.
Forest products contribute more than $700 million annually to the Rhode Island economy and support some 3,300 jobs, according to Tee Jay Boudreau, deputy chief for the Rhode Island Department of Management’s (DEM) Division of Forest Environment.
There’s also the recreational value of these woodlands. For instance, DEM oversees 30 parks and management areas that host 6 million visitors every year (that number includes repeat visitors) and generate $1.7 billion annually.
“Rhode Island has a substantial forest-based economy,” Boudreau said. “Hunting is a major beast ... a positive for Rhode Island.”
He noted that 20,000 hunters spend about $18 million annually on hunting-related business.
Boudreau recently took part in a Grow Smart Rhode Island panel discussion titled “Rhode Island Forests: Our Invisible Green Giant.” The discussion, held during Grow Smart’s recent "Power of Place Summit" at the Rhode Island Convention Center, also featured Bill Buffum, a research associate in the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Natural Resources Science, and Christopher Riely, coordinator of the Rhode Island Woodland Partnership. The talk was moderated by Christopher Modisette, state resource conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Prior to European settlement, Rhode Island’s landscape looked vastly different, as about 95 percent of the state was forested, according to the Rhode Island Woodland Partnership.
When settlers arrived, Buffum noted, Rhode Island’s forests were quickly converted to agricultural land — the state's collection of stone walls is a lasting reminder — leaving only 37 percent of the state forested by 1767. By 1870, only 25 percent of the state was forestland. Rhode Island’s woods have since made a comeback, with a high of 66 percent coverage in 1953.
Trees now cover 56 percent of the 17th-most forested state, and Rhode Island’s woodlands remain a vital economic resource. For example, about 30 percent of the state’s private forest landowners have had commercial harvesting activity on their property.
The annual gross state output of Rhode Island’s forest products industry totals nearly $710 million, and the state’s forest-based recreation economy generates about $375 million annually, according to a 2015 study the Economic Importance of Rhode Island’s Forest Based Economy.
Some 3,325 workers are employed in the forest products, maple and Christmas tree sectors, and another 1,500 jobs are found in the sectors that include and support the forest recreation economy, according to the 20-page study produced by the North East State Foresters Association.
The forestry and logging sectors of the state’s forest-based economy move logs, pulpwood, firewood or chips from the forest to their primary manufacturing market. Payroll for forestry and logging in Rhode Island, including, for example, operators of mobile sawmills, exceeds $1.2 million annually, according to the 2015 study. The value of sales from the state’s 19 registered logging operations is about $2 million annually.
The Rhode Island Woodland Partnership began in April 2013 as an informal gathering of loggers, foresters, conservationists, arborists and artisan woodworkers — people who cared about forest health but were largely working independently.
Some five years later, this now-formal partnership is working to increase the scale and pace of forestry in Rhode Island. The partnership has created a networking space for Rhode Island’s conservation community to stay abreast of issues impacting the region’s forests. The group’s working mission is to “advance the stewardship and long-term protection of Rhode Island’s woodlands to benefit the local economy, ecological values, and community enjoyment and health.”