Prudent management on Prudence Island


PRUDENCE ISLAND — Ruth Boivin took the ferry over to Prudence Island last week with some trepidation. Despite having four nieces and nephews who all own homes on Prudence, Ms. Boivin said she’d go nuts if she were surrounded by water all the time.

“No island is big enough for me,” joked the Attleboro, Mass. resident.

While she refuses to stay for any extended period of time on Prudence, she was happy to take a one-day trip last week to see what the folks at the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NBRR) were up to. Held in partnership with the Audubon Society of R.I., the tour was one of several NBRR hosts throughout the year on the 5.6-acre island, which is part of Portsmouth.

In 1980, the NBRR was established to manage 4,400 acres on Prudence, Patience, Hope and Dyer islands as part of a national network of reserves around the country from Puerto Rico to Alaska that protects more than 1.3 million acres of submerged and coastal land.

“A large portion of the island will never be developed,” said Maureen Delvine, NBRR’s education coordinator, adding that much of the property is used for research on climate control, invasive species, water quality and other topics.

Although the NBRR receives federal funds through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it’s really a state-run program managed by the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, according to reserve manager Bob Stankelis. There are only six full-time staff members, so NBRR relies on interns and volunteers to fill in the gap.

And they have plenty of work to do, cleaning up a mess that the military left behind four decades ago. During World War II, the U.S. Navy established an ammunition depot on the south end of the island, where the NBRR headquarters are now located. But in 1972, just three years after the Newport Bridge opened, the Navy turned the base over to the state because the island was no longer considered a strategic military location.

In doing so, the Navy left behind over 30 ammunition bunkers, a large deep-water pier and basically changed the topography of the area. “We’re trying to get it back to what it was,” said Mr. Stankelis.

Although every public tour includes a van ride around the island to explore points of interest  — “sort of a crash course on Prudence Island,” as Ms. Delvine described it — there’s also a specific topic covered during each program. An upcoming program focuses on island history (see related story), while the popular seal tours will start up when the weather gets colder.

Controlled burns

Last week’s topic was invasive species, with NBRR stewardship coordinator Robin Weber explaining how the reserve is fighting enemies such as European larch, bittersweet and Japanese barberry, which are choking some of Prudence Island’s native plants and trees.

Getting rid of invasive species is not only a challenge for the reserve due to a lack of funds, it’s not a fun job for volunteers, said Ms. Weber (although one program allows helpers to keep wood for fuel). Despite the hard work, NBRR has had success luring local college students to Prudence in March — a time of year when they’re more likely to be found in Cancun or South Beach, Fla.

“We have an alternative spring break program where I hand students a hand saw,” said Ms. Weber, who recently mowed 25 acres herself using a Bobcat tractor.

Perhaps her No. 1 enemy is the European larch; when tour participant Angie Bermudez of Riverside remarked that she liked the look of the larch, Ms. Weber didn’t hold her tongue.

“That’s unfortunate, because I intend to kill them all,” she said with a laugh.

Restoring the pine barrens on Prudence is a major focus of her work for two reasons: A number of species are dependent on them and they’re rare compared to hardwoods like oak, she said.

“My challenge is to keep it persisting into the future, not because I prefer pine over hardwood, but because we have so little of it,” said Ms. Weber, adding that cutting, mowing and controlled burns “keep the pine barrens happy.”

Controlled burns, with the assistance of the island’s volunteer fire department, are weather-dependent and require a two-day window; finding the right time and getting enough people on the ground is a challenge, she said. During the burns, there’s only a “10 percent mortality rate” for trees, she said, although many of the surviving trees may suffer a bit o charring.

NBRR is preparing for its next burn sometime this fall, which includes the maintenance of the existing firebreaks — gaps in vegetation that act as barriers to stop the progress of brush fires. “We’re creating these paths for the safety of the firefighters,” she said.

There’s also a big effort underway to restore grasslands and salt marshes on Prudence. She showed visitors “five acres of an 18-acre start” on the northern end of the island. “Grassland is one of the habitats most in need of restoration,” she said before pointing out a nearby salt marsh that was restored in 2003.

Pier used for water quality tests

After the main portion of the program was concluded, Ms. Delvine continued the tour by van to visit other points of interest on Prudence, including the T-Wharf on the south end, where large Navy ships once tied up. Now it’s used for monitoring water quality, and NBRR also has a small building on the pier which houses a touch tank for summer programs.

Other sites included the one-room schoolhouse, built in 1896, which has six or seven students this year of all ages. The tour also passed by Farnham Farm, dating back to 1805. The property includes a community garden as well as the Hope Brown Center, which serves as the island’s community center and hosts potluck dinners and movie nights.

Visitors also got to see the former resort on the west side of the island, formerly known as Prudence Park. It featured a casino, boarding house and gas lamps before it ceased being a resort destination in the 1920s. The tour concluded with a visit to an historic pre-Revolutionary War cemetery and a cold-water spring.

Back at the general store at the ferry landing, tour participants all said they enjoyed their day on Prudence. Angie Bermudez of Riverside was happy to get some exercise while learning about NBRR’s work on the island, and collected plenty of photos on her Nikon. For Ellen Loew, who came from Attleboro along with Ms. Boivin, it was a chance to relive some childhood memories of Prudence. She used to visit the island in the ’50s and has fond memories of its residents — real or imagined.

“There was a witch who lived out there and we used to go through the woods looking for her,” she said.

Ms. Boivin had a grand time as well, but it didn’t change her opinion about living on Prudence.

“No way!” she said on the 4 p.m. ferry back to Bristol.

Prudence history on Oct. 17

If you’d like to see for yourself what the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is doing on Prudence Island, the next public tour is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 17.

Participants in the “Hiking & History on Prudence Island” program, being run in partnership with the Audubon Society, will catch the 10 a.m. ferry from the Bristol landing on Thames Street. You’ll be met on Prudence by a staff member from the Reserve, who will take you by van to several spots on the island, which is rich in natural beauty and history dating back to the 1600s.

Visit historic sights including a cemetery, the one-room schoolhouse, old farm foundations, stonewalls and a mansion. The walking trails are relatively simple and you’ll go at an easy pace, but will cover about four to five miles over the course of the day.

Participants will return to Bristol on the 4 p.m. ferry. The program fee is $10 for Audubon members, $12 for non-members. Bring an extra $10 for the round-trip ferry trip and arrive at least 15 minutes early to the Bristol landing.

There’s a free municipal parking lot across from the ferry landing, or you can choose to park in the Bristol ferry parking lot for $10 for the day. Free and non-permit parking is also available along upper Church Street and along High Street in Bristol.

Bring binoculars, camera, packed lunch, at least one water bottle, insect and tick repellent, sun block, comfortable foot wear and be sure to dress for the weather. Ticks are an issue on Prudence Island so wear long-sleeved, light-colored shirt and pants, and shoes with tall socks so you can tuck pants into socks as needed.

Registration is required; call 401/949-5454 or visit

To learn more about the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, visit


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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.