Exceptional Life of Environmental Pioneer Ed Wood
October 28, 2020
Look around Rhode Island. Some things that might immediately stand out are the ocean, dune-ruffled beaches, and the Superman Building. But go a little deeper and other highlights emerge: the river winding through the core of the state capital; the East Bay Bike Path carving its way from Providence to Bristol; the scenic and wild Wood-Pawcatuck watershed that cuts through Washington County. And peel the layers further back on these local gems, and you’ll find the fingerprints, notes, dreams, and hard work of the late Ed Wood.
“If you look around the state, there’s just a lot of things he had a hand in,” said Robert Bendick, who worked with Wood when the latter was director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
When Wood passed away on Sept. 15 at age 79, Rhode Island lost one of its most passionate caretakers.
W. Edward Wood was born in 1941 in Sault Saint Marie, Ontario, Canada, but grew up on the outskirts of Detroit. He attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a degree in political science. After graduating in 1962, he joined the Marine Corps and spent a little more than a year serving in Vietnam.
His list of accomplishments as a young man grew to include a master’s degree in Japanese studies and a job as an Associate Press reporter in Indiana.
He moved to Rhode Island in 1970 to work as a reporter at the Providence Journal, but it was during his tenure as director of the recently formed DEM, a position he held from 1977 to 1982, where Wood found his true calling.
“He was dedicated to the cause of straightening out Rhode Island’s environment, which had a lot of problems,” said Bendick, who is currently the regional director for The Nature Conservancy in the Gulf of Mexico. “And he, himself, loved the outdoors and nature.”
It seems like divine providence that a man with the last name Wood would feel most at home amidst the flora and fauna.
“Dad loved the outdoors,” daughter Erika Wood wrote in an email. “He was an avid hiker. He was always very quiet on the trail. Although I doubt he would ever say it this way, I think being in nature allowed him to experience a level of inner peace and equilibrium, and mental clarity. He did a lot of thinking as he walked.”
And his thoughts, nurtured in nature, bore many fruits. As director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT), a position he held after his post at DEM, Wood worked with Bendick — who succeeded him as DEM director — and architect Bill Warner to redirect the rivers through downtown Providence, changing the city forever.
“It required a bunch of money and cooperation between the two departments and most of the money for the major moving of rivers and building walkways and building bridges was DOT money,” Bendick said. “And so Ed was able to bring that federal and state money to the equation and DEM brought the resources for Waterplace Park … and it was just an example of how government should work, of looking for creative ideas and engaging the community and bringing resources to thinking very long-run about what Providence could be, and Ed was good at that, at all those things. That cooperation, that thinking creatively, and that cutting through the red tape to do good things.”
Bendick also worked with Wood on the East Bay Bike Path, another seminal infrastructure project that cements his legacy as a change-maker in the state.
But Wood’s passion for the environment and creating ways for people to enjoy it was as micro as it was macro. One project he was particularly passionate about was the creation of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association (WPWA), which was born as a joke on the eve of his retirement from DEM in 1982.
“He’s thrown into the founder category because of the story about the retirement party check with the fake name of an organization on it,” said Chris Fox, executive director of the WPWA. “Everybody contributed funds at the retirement party, and I think they had 1500 bucks or something and they put Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association on the check and said you’ll have to start this organization if you want to cash this check!”
So, Wood did.
In 1983, the WPWA was born. Since its inception, the organization has helped spearhead the University of Rhode Island Watershed Watch program and, after years of hard work, the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed finally received the federal wild and scenic designation last year. And through it all, Wood lent a guiding hand and ear to listen.
“He was what I call an enabler,” said Alan Desbonnet, WPWA board president. “Whenever there were issues or problems, he would sit down with people and figure out a way to enable them to do stuff.”
Never one to bask in the spotlight, Wood was more comfortable helping other people reach their potential, and often attempted to blur into the background whenever recognition was doled out.
“He was very much like the wizard of Oz, behind the curtain, pulling whatever levers needed to be pulled,” Fox said.
Behind his green curtain, Wood guided the WPWA, worked with the Hopkinton Land Trust to preserve the natural beauty in his own backyard, and, beyond the scope of Rhode Island, headed operations for the Clinton Health Access Initiative, a program that combats AIDS and other diseases in 39 developing countries.
He seemed to live — no, thrive — off of helping others.
“I don’t know whether anybody, even his family, have assembled a list of all the boards and fundraising efforts and different things that he did,” Bendick said. “Every place you look there’s something that he’s done that’s good for people.”
When he wasn’t helping save wildlife or setting up clinics in Africa, you could find Wood hiking, cooking his way through a master class, or tending to the Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc grapes in the vineyard that he and a group of his friends managed.
But all the while the cogs were still turning. He would still be thinking about his next project, thinking how he could tackle various problems big and small.
“He believed every problem had a solution, and every question had an answer,” his daughter wrote. “His endless curiosity drove him to figure out the solution, to find the answer.”
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Another of Ed Wood’s notable accomplishments was the effort he spearheaded in 1978 as DEM’s first Director to establish a Natural Heritage Program in Rhode Island.
The Natural Heritage concept was the brainchild of Dr. Bob Jenkins, the first Vice President of Science at The Nature Conservancy. As Bob tells it, at the time the process by which TNC was selecting their conservation projects was, “….somewhere between faulty and nonexistent. None of the lands acquired were actually designed for viability and defensibility, nor completed with any ecological sense. I realized we had no idea what we were doing. So I began to think about what we should be trying to protect.”
Bob made the case that TNC’s work should focus on maintaining natural diversity through a unified approach with the creation of a network of State Natural Heritage Programs, all using the same data collection and management technologies developed by TNC. It would be the advent of Conservation Science in which biodiversity data serves as the driver of land conservation. And not just conservation by TNC, but by State governments and Federal agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Rhode Island was certainly not the first state that came to Bob Jenkins mind in his plan to create a nationwide Natural Heritage network, but Peggy Sharpe was serving on the National TNC Board of Governors at the time, and she approached Ed Wood with the idea. He quickly understood Jenkin’s visionary approach and determined that Rhode Island must have a NHP. Ed convinced Governor Garrahy to include about 40K in the DEM budget to match TNC funding to establish the RI program, and with Peggy’s help approached corporate donors for additional support. The list of donors would eventually include the Rhode Island Foundation, Fleet Bank, Old Stone Bank, RI Hospital Trust, Citizens Bank, Allendale Insurance, Cranston Print Works, American Hoechst, American Tourister, the Providence Journal, and Leesona.
In 1978, the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program became the 18th program to join the TNC Natural Heritage Network. In 1995, TNC opened the Rhode Island field office to continue its biodiversity data-driven land conservation efforts in the state. Eventually, the Network would grow to include programs in all US States, Canadian Provinces, and throughout Latin America; but today, there is no longer a Natural Heritage Program in Rhode Island. You might ask the current DEM Director and TNC what led them to abandon Ed and Peggy’s original vision.
This is a very valuable history of natural history preservation in RI, and disheartening news that RI no longer participates in the Natural Heritage Program. Ed Wood and Peggy Sharpe were among those who did incredible work to preserve what is the oldest and best of Rhode Island. I hope Rick’s tribute helps lead to restoration of RI’s Natural Heritage Program.
I knew Ed and admired him, sorry to hear he died. I was part of the effort he supported to get the East Bat Bike Path built, and there was plenty of opposition. Ed was collaborative, he talked with community groups. To get it built took real effort and every time I ride it I remember Ed and Joe Arruda at RIDOT, George Redman, Rep Tom Byrnes, leaders who persisted and helped get it done. Its also to the credit of Governor Garrahy that such a man was appointed to head RIDOT that not long before was only about highways and considered you were amongst the "crazies" if you supported bike paths or passenger rail improvements. Seems we have gone backwards asa our current RIDOT head seems so into many expensive highway expansions and widenings (I-95, 195, 295, 4, 146, 403) and into destroying a convenient central bus hub in Providence. (he also ended the quarterly "Roundtables" that previous Directors had with community and environmental groups.)
Love everything about this article, and as a fellow Canadian by birth, am thankful he shared his love of nature with so many beyond the traditional borders.
We were blessed to have such a tireless environmental champion among us. His legacy will live on for generations.
Wow. Ed Wood will be missed. Hope that an individual(s) at DEM or another local environmental agency follows in his footsteps. We need more people like Ed Wood in Rhode Island. Thank you for this article.
Such a loss of a very talented team player and one with a lot of guts and integrity.
Without Ed Wood, not only would there be no East Bay Bike Path, there would also be no state wide bike path system in RI, no bike racks on RIPTA buses, etc. He was a true pioneer with his 1980 DEM plan "Bikes, Parks, People"
He took a lot of very public abuse about his advocacy for the bike path and outdoor recreation, but he never lost sight of the goal, even though he was accused of being a "failed social planner" among other public insults. He persevered, mastering the many small details but never losing sight of the big picture
He was a true visionary and we all owe him a great debt.
There’s a time for lamentation and a time for dressing in green again. So what better way could there be to honor the memory of Ed Wood—one very consequential way, certainly—than to revive the Natural Heritage Program?
Yakkity yakkity yak, our plethora of environmental organizations in this state talk about "biodiversity."
Well, this an opportunity to do something about it. Why the reestablishment of the Natural Heritage Program has not been a priority of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island is simply mystifying. All eyes these days seem to be exclusively focused on the clouds.