2013-10-17 / Front Page

Islander helping preserve forests one tree at a time

By Ken Shane

Matt Largess, the founder of Largess Forestry, has stopped destroying forests in order to save them. He is one of the influential leaders behind Portsmouth’s Oakland Forest & Meadow Preserve. 
Courtesy/Matt Largess Matt Largess, the founder of Largess Forestry, has stopped destroying forests in order to save them. He is one of the influential leaders behind Portsmouth’s Oakland Forest & Meadow Preserve. Courtesy/Matt Largess Developers from Providence hired Matt Largess of Jamestown in 1999 to take a look at a forest in Portsmouth. He was supposed to determine how to clear it for the construction of homes. Largess, the owner of the well-known tree service that bears his name, took one look at the healthy old-growth beech trees in the forest and had a change of heart. He told the people who hired him that the forest should not be destroyed, but preserved.

That was the beginning of a conservation effort where $1.5 million would eventually be raised to purchase the 20 acres of land from the developers. The land was then deeded to the Aquidneck Land Trust. In 2000, the Oakland Forest & Meadow Preserve was created.

Largess was born in Wickford and grew up on Conanicut Island. He attended Paul Smith College in the Adirondacks of New York state where he got his forestry degree. Unable to get a job after graduation, Largess traveled to the Pacific Northwest where he found work as a logger. He worked in Oregon and California for 10 years, and did some of the first helicopter logging.

Largess eventually came back east to visit his family. He found logging work in Maine, but eventually realized he could make more money doing yard work. He bought a local company for $9,000 and named it Largess Forestry. It has since expanded from the original arborist company to include a consulting firm that takes Largess all over the country.

“Who would ever think that it would get as big as it is?” Largess said.

Even during his work as a logger,

Largess loved the forest and felt bad about what he was doing to it. It was then that he had problems with alcohol and it wasn’t until he got sober that his thinking began to change. Then the call came for him to look at Oakland Forest.

“I got called to cut down Oakland Forest,” Largess said. “That’s how I ended up going there. The story of Oakland Forest is amazing. It changed my life. It changed the lives of many others.”

According to Largess, Oakland Forest is one of the rarest forests in North America. It is the oldest beech forest in the country, and is the only one of its kind. Once he determined the value of the forest, he began to speak to the developers about saving it. They weren’t interested in what he had to say, however.

The story to raise money to preserve the old-growth forest went national, with articles in the N.Y. Times and USA Today. There were many meetings and some heated arguments along the way, but eventually the forest was saved as a result of Largess’ efforts, along with those of Eleanor Kenney, who spearheaded the fundraising drive.

“The forest is famous now,” Largess said. “It’s being studied worldwide. It’s a rare place because it doesn’t have beech bark disease. The trees are really ancient and it’s pristine. It’s so old and yet it’s so healthy. Scientists are baffled by its health. In the science world, it’s a Rembrandt.”

Largess remains involved with the forest to this day. He helps the land trust as a caretaker, and he even leads walks from time to time.

That was just the beginning for Largess as a preservationist. These days he gets calls from all over the country to help save trees. One such project is Sadler Woods in Haddon Township, N.J. It is similar to Oakland Forest because it’s an old-growth forest. The town wanted to cut it down to create soccer fields, but Largess was called in to consult. The forest was saved.

The 1,000-acre Robinson State Park near Springfield, Mass., contains the tallest, most biodiverse forest in New England. The state of Massachusetts was planning to log it. Once again, Largess was called in. And once again, the forest was saved.

These days Largess is called to give lectures on his preservation efforts. He has become known as the “Voice of the Forest,” and has made television appearances to discuss his work as an arborist.

“The forests made me their spokesman,” Largess said. “But the thing I have to remember is that it’s not me being famous. It’s me speaking for those trees. One little thing in my life changed everything.”

The effort to save forests has not always been successful for Largess, however. He said the losses are emotional. Among the trees that he failed to save was the largest black oak in New England, which was cut down by a developer. A pitch pine forest in Connecticut was clear-cut, and one of the biggest elms in the world was cut down to clear land to build a school in Quincy, Mass.

“I use the same format as Oakland,” Largess said. “I try to get it in the press. I try to get people involved. Even if those forests were lost, I still educated the public about how important they are.”

Largess has no doubt the calls will increase. He said forests are becoming more threatened as a result of development activities. Right now he is involved in trying to save one of the world’s biggest live oaks. It’s located in South Carolina and is threatened by nearby development deals that could kill it.

Although he still lives on the island, Largess moved his business to Shady Lea Mill in North Kingstown because it was expanding so rapidly he needed more room. His crews plant trees, move trees, trim trees and treat trees. The only tree removal his company does involves clearing invasive species.

“I’m still at it after all these years,” he said. “I’m never giving up. It shows you that if you stick with something, you can go really far.”

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