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Published on February 7, 2023

Threats to Rhode Island Tree and Forest Health 

By Dr. Scott Ruhren, Senior Director of Conservation 

Hiking along the orange trail at Audubon’s Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge, you can see dead beech trees with dry bark splitting open. Many beeches at Parker Woodland and Maxwell Mays Wild life Refuges also exhibit the telltale black-streaked leaves of a new disease. Our American beeches are threatened by beech leaf disease and beech bark disease.  

Beech leaf disease is becoming more common in southern and western Rhode Island forests. The black streaks are created by nematodes, tiny worms living inside the leaves. Currently the disease is considered untreatable and fatal for infected beeches. Sooty mold fungus of beeches is a bizarre-looking creature linked to beech-blight aphids. The fungus grows in large black masses on the honeydew of aphids. Luckily this does not seem to affect beech health, but in combination with other diseases and the stress of warmer and drier summers, the outcome could be worse. It is becoming difficult to not encounter one of these beech diseases in Rhode Island forests.  

A forest with less beeches means many things. Beech nuts are an important part of the fall diet of Rhode Island birds including Rose-breasted Gros-beaks, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice, Ruffed Grouse and even Wood Ducks. Gray and red squirrels and eastern chipmunks consume and cache countless beech nuts underground.  

This ‘forest story’ is not new. Forests have always had their share of natural biological threats. Parasites and pathogens have a long history with trees. Through time these interactions become more benign, and the impacts may go unnoticed, particularly when trees are healthy and unstressed and the pests are a natural part of the community. This has changed over the past 50 years. Introduced tree pests have altered the forest landscape and led to near extinction of several North American tree species. New forest pests with no local history often render native host trees defenseless. American chestnut is the most infamous example, with this tree’s disappearance leading to change in hardwood forests in eastern North America.  

Dr. Scott Ruhren is the Senior Director of Conservation at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. 

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