New Study Finds R.I.’s Forests Need Vigilant Protection
February 19, 2020
Rhode Island’s 386,373 acres of forest protect drinking water, filter air, mitigate climate change, provide opportunities for outdoor recreation, promote health, harbor wildlife, and create economic value, according to the state’s Department of Environment (DEM). The Ocean State’s forests also improve air quality, sequester carbon, help manage stormwater runoff, and provide a “sense of place” for rural communities.
These forests are irreplaceable habitats without which the state would be a far-lesser place, according to a recent study produced by the Rhode Island Tree Council and the Rhode Island Forest Conservation Advisory Committee. The study titled The Value of Rhode Island Forests outlines the benefits provided by forestland and recommends a suite of potential strategies to encourage conservation. The study was funded through DEM with a grant from the U.S. Forest Service.
The agency’s director, Janet Coit, said the report “will be essential in guiding DEM as we work with stakeholders to update Rhode Island’s Forest Action Plan and develop and implement new policies to conserve our state’s vital forestland.”
The study notes that an increase in utility-scale ground-mounted solar projects being developed on open space has caused deforestation in rural areas and spurred significant community concern about forest conservation. Such solar projects require 3-5 acres per megawatt, according to the study.
“Under Rhode Island’s laws and programs as of 2019, it is often cheaper for solar developers to install projects on green spaces instead of parking lots, rooftops, and landfills that necessitate managing land remediation, navigating additional regulatory oversight, or managing built structures,” according to the 133-page study. “Although solar installations reduce carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution from fossil fuel sources, solar installations do not provide the clean water, human health, wildlife and recreation benefits that a forest inherently provides in addition to carbon storage and sequestration. Even when a piece of developed land is converted back into a green space, it takes centuries for the land to naturally transition from field to old growth forest.”
The document recommends numerous strategies for promoting forest conservation, such as creating dedicated funding sources, incorporating smart-growth principles into land-use planning and permitting, and supporting market-based incentives.
The study highlights the environmental, economic, and cultural benefits of Rhode Island’s forests:
They clean the air and water, an important service since 80 percent of Rhode Islanders rely on surface reservoirs surrounded by largely forested watersheds for drinking water.
They remove nearly 14,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants in Rhode Island every year, providing more than $30 million annually in pollution removal benefits.
Rhode Island forests absorb about 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. They store an estimated 26.7 million metric tons of carbon.
They protect Rhode Island communities from extreme weather.
Trees support healthy communities by countering the urban heat-island effect, mitigating flooding dangers, and reducing energy bills.
Rhode Island’s forests continue to be used by indigenous people as places to gather resources used for food, medicine, and culturally significant ceremonies.
Forests allow wildlife to thrive. Core forests larger than 250 acres are considered critical to support more than 450 species of greatest conservation need in Rhode Island.
More than 500 Rhode Island businesses in the forestry and wood products sector generated a total economic impact of $715 million and had 4,800 jobs in 2016.
An estimated 503,000 people participating in wildlife-related recreation each year bring $348 million to the state’s economy through fishing, hunting, and wildlife watching.
More than 50 percent of Rhode Island is forested, with most forestland owned by private residents who face increased pressure to develop it for other uses. The most common forest health threats are from development or through fragmentation of large forested parcels into smaller parcels, making sustainable forest management difficult, according to the study.
Rhode Island has lost nearly 2,000 acres of critically important core forestland between 2011 and 2018.