The end of the American Beech forests?

Posted 7/20/22

To the Editor,

Right now, Rhode Island is facing a pandemic. However, I am not talking about Covid, but a pandemic affecting Rhode Island’s American Beech trees that could lead to the near …

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The end of the American Beech forests?


To the Editor,

Right now, Rhode Island is facing a pandemic. However, I am not talking about Covid, but a pandemic affecting Rhode Island’s American Beech trees that could lead to the near regional extinction of American Beech trees in Rhode Island. The American Beech is a native tree that has been in Rhode Island since the glaciers melted in the last Ice Age. Before the Europeans colonized Rhode Island, the primeval old growth forests which covered the land were dominated by American Beech trees. Actually, the American Beech along with oaks were the most dominant tree species in Rhode Island in the primeval forest, followed by the American Chestnut. Being in an American Beech Forest is not like being in just any forest. It is completely different with the massive canopies and the lack of underbrush which makes it very easy to walk through the forest. The smooth, whitish/grey bark of the trees shimmer when light shines on it. For a second, you could mistake the forest for one you might find in medieval Europe.

In the fall, the beech experience is even better. Instead of the leaves turning brown like most trees, the American Beech leaves turn a coppery, goldish color. The copper leaves on the forest floor can be seen yards before you enter the beech forest. However, a decent number of leaves also stay on the beech trees up till spring, being some of the only deciduous trees that still has some leaves in winter. It is like being in another world walking through this golden forest. However, this experience might soon end due to a tree disease which is quickly killing most of the American Beech trees in Rhode Island. This disease is called Beech Leaf Disease, and it has no cure.

The American Beech has been in a steep decline in Rhode Island for the last 400 years. When the original old growth forest which covered the land was clearcut by the European settlers, the American Beech trees did not come back as readily as oaks, red maples, and black birch. Also, Rhode Island’s history of forest management which includes timber harvesting has prevented most of Rhode Island’s forests from reaching maturity. American Beech trees are often found in last stage mature forests and old growth forests which are very rare today in Rhode Island. Then in the 20th century, the American Beech trees were hit by Beech Bark Disease which killed much of the American Beech on the east coast, including Rhode Island.

Beech Leaf Disease is caused by a nematode which consumes the beech leaves from the inside. However, unlike Beech Bark Disease which mostly kills mature beech trees, Beech Leaf Disease is killing both mature trees and saplings. Beech Leaf Disease could be one of Rhode Island’s greatest ecological disasters since the Chestnut Blight that wiped out the American Chestnut trees in the early 1900’s. However, unlike the Chestnut Blight which affects Chestnut trees as they mature, Beech Leaf Disease can prevent American Beech trees from reproducing which could make this disease even worse than the Chestnut Blight.

Beech Leaf Disease is already here in southern Rhode Island, and quickly moving north. A few weeks ago, a scientist from URI, and I, were in the Great Swamp in South Kingstown studying Old Growth Forests where we noticed almost every American Beech tree was infected by Beech Leaf Disease. Warwick could be next.

If we do not find a cure soon, the American Beech Forests could disappear from Rhode Island and the east coast forever.

It is my hope that the new Senate Old Growth Forest Study Commission, created in a Resolution sponsored by Senator McCaffrey this year, could, along with mapping old growth forests, try to find a cure to Beech Leaf Disease since American Beech trees are amongst the oldest in Rhode Island and are prominent in many of Rhode Island’s remaining old growth forests. The disappearance of them could be disastrous to the old growth forest ecosystem.

Also, I would encourage people who see a beech tree infected by Beech Leaf Disease, to leave the tree alone. When the Chestnut Blight hit, people thought cutting down the trees would stop the disease, but it actually accelerated the disease’s spread and killed the few resistant trees which could have been instrumental in saving the species. We must not make that same mistake with the beech trees.

We can still stop this pandemic, but we need to all work together now to find a cure, so the American Beech trees and their enchanted forests don’t become a distant memory.

Nathan Cornell

President of the Old Growth Tree Society

A Warwick resident, Cornell is a Warwick School Committee member.

letters, editorial


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