By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
By his own count, Rhode Island has about 700 “champions.” John Campanini Jr. should know; he’s spent the past 25 years traveling the state’s back roads, main roads, dirt roads and hiking trials searching for them.
Development, disease and natural disasters have wiped out many of Rhode Island’s grandest trees. Trees with significant trunks — measured 4.5 feet above the ground — majestically tall and with impressive crown spreads account for only a small percentage of the state’s canopy cover, according to the longtime director of the Rhode Island Tree Council.
“The 1938 hurricane is the new starting point because the storm was so destructive,” Campanini said. “Only about 5 percent of the trees that survived that hurricane were of the spectacular variety. There’s not many of them left.”
In the 1930s, likely due in part to the decline of the American elm, searching for spectacular trees became a hobby, as tree enthusiasts began recording the biggest trees in their city, town and state. The earliest tree measurement Rhode Island has on record was made March 16, 1931 by Hope resident John B. Hudson, for a black oak.
According to the Rhode Island Tree Council, the Ocean State has a lengthy history of “champion tree hunting.” From the 1940s through the ’60s, Providence resident Elizabeth G. Weeks kept a file of big-tree measurements in a wooden box labeled simply “E’s Tree Measurements.” These measurements were often collected on Appalachian Mountain Club hikes and outings.
During the 1970s, Richard L. Champlin of Jamestown became known as “The Tree Man.” Records of big trees and inquiries were directed his way. As a librarian at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum in Newport, he developed an inventory of the specimen trees of Newport. In 1976, he wrote a book titled “Trees of Newport on the estates of the Preservation Society of Newport County.”
Over time, Champlin became one of the foremost natural-history experts in the state, documenting Rhode Island’s broad diversity of natural and cultural features. After his death in 2003, Paul Dolan, as principal forester at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, saw the need to continue Champlin’s work, which eventually lead to the creation of the Rhode Island Tree Council’s Big Tree Program.
“We need to increase our protection of trees,” said Campanini, noting Rhode Island should follow the examples set by Providence, Cranston and Newport. “Trees are a capital asset. We need a rational approach to protection that respects our trees.”
Campanini suggested adopting measures that are similar to what the Maryland Department of Natural Resources enacted in the early 1990s. The main goal of Maryland’s Forest Conservation Act is to minimize the loss of forest resources during development by making the identification and protection of forests and other sensitive areas an integral part of the planning process.
He said the Maryland law didn’t stop development. A “tree bank” was created that required builders to plant trees. “Maryland has conserved more acres than originally projected, as builders learned that reducing a footprint cost less than paying for tree plantings,” Campanini said. “Developers became Maryland’s greatest conservationists. Developers are smart people. They understand.”
The law, and its focus on protecting forestland, Campanini said, has allowed Maryland to better protect Chesapeake Bay and manage stormwater runoff.
“Unfortunately, measures like that are a hard sell across Rhode Island,” he said. “Not enough people truly appreciate and understand the benefits provided by trees.”
Those benefits include improving air and water quality, wildlife habitat and ecosystem stability.