Forestry in the Ocean State
As Rhode Island's first inhabitants, Native Americans interacted with the forest to provide for their basic needs, periodically burning the forest to improve habitat for game animals. Small areas were cleared for agriculture and “hunting grounds” maintained by using frequent small fires to remove underbrush and stimulate the growth of grass. This resulted in a forest dominated by large trees with an open understory. When Roger Williams founded a settlement in Providence in 1636, Rhode Island was probably 95% forested. As the state became more heavily settled, greater areas of forest were cleared for agriculture; the earliest estimate of forest area was 31% in 1767. This trend continued as the population increased until, by the end of the nineteenth century, almost 80% of the land had been cleared. By the end of the nineteenth century, Rhode Island forests had reached their lowest point in both land area and forest condition. The introduction of portable steam-powered sawmills in the early 1870s coupled with Rhode Island's prominent role in the Industrial Revolution meant unprecedented harvesting of the remaining forest.
Availability of more productive land in the western United States and improved transportation that brought western products to eastern markets led to the abandonment of many farms in Rhode Island. The industrial revolution also led to a shift in economic opportunities and many farmers moved into urban areas for work. This idle land quickly reverted to forest. The trend of increasing forest cover continued until after World War II. The land area covered by this “second growth” forest peaked in 1963, at 67%. Since then, forestland in Rhode Island has declined as land has been cleared for development. As of 2008, the state was 52% forested, amounting to 348,400 acres of forestland.
The Division of Forest Environment manages 40,000 acres of state-owned rural forestland. It coordinates a statewide forest fire protection plan, provides forest fire protection on state lands, assists rural volunteer fire departments, and develops forest and wildlife management plans for private landowners who choose to manage their property in ways that will protect these resources on their land. The Division promotes public understanding of environmental conservation, enforces rules and regulations on Department of Environmental Management lands, and assists the federal government in providing landowner assistance programs.