Land Use

R.I.’s Forest Action Plan Lacks Clear Policy to Prevent Its Loss

Public concerned about increasing amount of forestland lost to solar development

Critics of the plan say it doesn’t go far enough in recommending a comprehensive policy for conserving forestland that is under development pressure. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

A plan to protect and enhance forested land in Rhode Island soon to be submitted to the U.S. Forest Service has stirred at least some disappointment from stakeholders and might well illustrate the lack of a comprehensive state plan to prevent forest loss.

The Forest Action Plan 2020, prepared by the Division of Forest Environment (DFE) in the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), assesses forest health, identifies the multiple environmental benefits of forestland, and outlines threats to Rhode Island forest. It also explains DFE programs that address forest loss and protection. The plan is required by the U.S. Forest Service to justify federal funding of DFE programs, which form the bulk of the unit’s resources.

While critics say the plan defines forest health and identifies significant threats to forestland, they say it doesn’t go far enough in recommending a clear, comprehensive state policy for conserving forestland that is under severe pressure from commercial, residential, and renewable-energy development, particularly ground-mounted solar installations.

“The Forest Action Plan clearly identifies forest fragmentation as a major concern, but there are no specific strategies in the plan for combating forest loss,” said Rupert Friday, executive director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council, a coalition of community land trusts. “The plan does not seem integrated with other DEM programs that address land conservation, and that seems odd and disappointing to me.”

Tee Jay Boudreau, DFE’s deputy chief, said the Forest Action Plan is meant to alert people to the dangers associated with forest loss and the need for proper stewardship, but policy regarding conservation is made at the highest levels of state government. DFE manages 29 areas that include forestland, including state parks such as Acadia and private land that has designated conservation easements. In fact, the bulk of forestland in Rhode Island is in the hands of more than 39,000 private owners, and the Forest Action Plan (FAP) acknowledges that those owners are under pressure to sell land for development.

“The plan is helpful for stakeholders and policymakers, but the state’s leaders need to step up with policy that would truly conserve and protect forest habitats,” said Meg Kerr, senior director of policy at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. “The plan almost seems like a summary of business as usual when it should outline what we need to do differently. The state’s leaders should seek help from the experts in that regard, and I think DEM should lead the conversation. The pressures on landowners for commercial and residential development aren’t decreasing even though the state’s population is not growing. This is a serious policy issue.”

Grow Smart Rhode Island’s Scott Millar agreed with Kerr and Friday that the plan doesn’t go far enough with a strategy for conserving forestland.

“This is a broader issue than just the FAP,” Millar said. “We have a particular problem with forest loss because of solar-energy initiatives. Even though achieving forest conservation is beyond what DEM can do by themselves, it was disappointing that the plan does not have recommendations on how DEM proposes to achieve forest conservation.”

Millar noted that the FAP could include conservation recommendations made in an earlier report, The Value of Rhode Island Forests, as a starting point to move leaders toward a conservation plan. Critics also say a comprehensive forest conservation plan would require input from municipal zoning regulators since much of the forestland is in or near residential areas. They also pointed to a June 2010 report that outlined measures to better protect Rhode Island’s forests.

As part of the process of putting the latest Forest Action Plan together, DFE circulated a survey and took input from dozens of stakeholders, including organizations such as Grow Smart and the Land Trust Council. Boudreau acknowledged that the FAP is primarily a document to outline his unit’s efforts at education of landowners and promotion of best practices, including fire prevention, pest control, and dealing with invasive species. Public input from the survey emphasized forest loss, especially from solar development.

The pressure regarding forest fragmentation ironically illustrates a conflict with state energy policy. As the state tries to move away from fossil fuels, it has encouraged solar installation, which has added pressure on landowners to sell forestland for ground-mounted energy development.

“Solar arrays are clearly a threat,” Boudreau said. “But our ability to deal with that is limited by policy and resources.”

That, in essence, is the problem, which was highlighted in a Land Trust Council letter recently sent to DEM. The FAP also clearly states that large contiguous blocks of forest should be protected, but solar developers have been cutting into those blocks with small projects near other small projects.

“In effect, the solar developers are building large fields out of collections of small fields,” Kerr said. “What this shows is that as a state we are too compartmentalized. We need a much more comprehensive approach driven by state leaders.”

John Pantalone is an associate professor and department chair at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media.

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  1. Global forest losses are one of the big drivers of climate change. RI needs to step up and stop deforestation as part of our climate policy. And if solar is a part of our future energy strategy we need very good numbers on the trade offs of solar for forest. I do not think solar wins, but where solar can provide multiple benefits is on buildings and parking lots. The benefits of shading parking lots can help reduce the heat island effect. Ground mounted solar makes it worse. And the list could go on and on.

    The report makes clear that DEM is constrained by a governor who still wants to make Wall St happy, but the only way to do that is growing inequality and climate catastrophe and these days that leads to pandemics and people in the streets. Climate justice has to lead everything RI does in the nest 20 years, or life is going to get very strange and dictators will roam the land.

  2. It’s too bad the professionals at RIDEM have to take the rap for the flawed energy policies advanced by the administration that pits the development of sound forestry Management against the bulwark of supposedly eco- friendly technologies. As I’ve been telling my friends for years, we already have the best forest conservation strategies in place that RI can offer. They are lousy schools, high taxes, and a poor economic climate. Without them, most of RI would resemble surface parking lots in Downtown Providence!
    John Campanini

  3. We need a Rhode Island League of Conservation Voters—although, we so many environmental organizations already, another one might be redundant and thus counterproductive. Could we dream, perhaps, that the Environmental Council of Rhode Island could play that role?

    We know where the problem is: the leadership and rank and file at the Statehouse. Yes, we can blame the Governor, too, but with the Statehouse as immobile as it is—each election returning the same cast of characters tied to the extractive development industries—Governors are incentivized to dance to the tune of the Statehouse leadership. To get the problem, to make change, we need a whole new block of legislators who understand and act upon the key role that sustaining our remarkable landscape must play if we are to underwrite our future prosperity. To win that game, first at the polls and then in at the Statehouse, with Governor’s following in train, we need resources—money—and an organization that will poll the State’s voters to identify the environmental priorities peculiar to each district so that environmental reform candidates can tailor their messages accordingly and actually win. To further assist voter choice, the sitting legislators would be score-carded by such an organization as well, score carded against the very data collected by the polling. And our myriad existing environmental organizations must all assist, especially the big, long entrenched, well funded ones. They need to do some serious institutional self-reflection about their own role in or political ecology, and determine to do something, anything, more bold and risky than they are doing now because the status quo just ain’t working. And the younger must reflect upon their own agendas and activities, and determine that coalition building with established organizations, and expanding their own range of environmental interest and activism is vital if they are to get a seat at the table where the real power is wielded.

  4. Before discussing the faults of state government, first consider where this plan is coming from. The Forest Action Plan is required by the US Forest Service for a state to get funding for various forest-related programs, and as such is a reflection of USFS priorities and objectives. I suggest learning more about what those priorities are. In 2018, then Chief of the Forest Service Tony Tooke outlined “five national priorities to help guide decision-making for the agency”(https://www.naco.org/articles/forest-service-chief-outlines-new-priorities
    It has been pointed out by several people that those priorities do not mention biodiversity, carbon storage, or climate change.

    We can pass this nonsense off as a product of the Trump administration, but you won’t see much change under new leadership because natural resource agencies (USFS, US Fish and Wildlife, NRCS) are there to promote “the resource” and manage “the resource” for optimum yield and sustainability. Unfortunately, “the resource” only includes those things that make money – game animals, trees for wood products. The rest of biodiversity just gets in the way. Painted trilliums and Cerulean Warblers don’t make money. So when any of these agencies address climate change it is in regard to protecting the resource, ensuring that under the climate catastrophe we are facing, no matter what happens we’ll still be able to get our daily bag limit of woodcock, or enough lumber to build that second home.

    The Forest Service priorities become those of the state’s, and a RI Forest Action Plan that also does not mention biodiversity, and barely anything about “managing” forests to increase carbon sequestration. I put that in quotes because to provide for optimal sequestration we should not be managing forests, by cutting trees down. Instead, we should be adopting Proforestation practices, essentially allowing existing forests to grow to their full ecological potential, maximizing biodiversity and sequestration. The full idea can be found in this article (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/ffgc.2019.00027/full)

    Proforestation is anathema to the US Forest Service and RI Division of Forest Environment. Not cut trees down? It’s pretty clear where the priorities are by this scary statement in the Action Plan, right up at the start on page 4: “Rhode Island’s forests are considered second growth and approximately 96% is classified as timberland, forest land that exceeds the minimum level of productivity and is available to harvest.”

    We also learn the following. “Tee Jay Boudreau, DFE’s deputy chief, said the Forest Action Plan is meant to alert people to the dangers associated with forest loss and the need for proper stewardship, but policy regarding conservation is made at the highest levels of state government. Really? A plan written by a deputy chief and an Assistant Director at DEM. Who is at the next highest level of state government to make policy regarding conservation? Janet Coit? Heaven help us. Note that her much touted C4 Climate Action Plan also does not mention biodiversity or how to maximize the carbon sequestration potential of the state’s natural forest cover.

    Of course, none of this is a surprise to those who followed the Invenergy fiasco. To refresh your memory, a power plant was proposed in the state’s most ecologically significant forest, but the DEM Division of Forest Environment provided NO advisory opinion on the impacts of this project, to forest health, loss of carbon sequestration potential, forest biodiversity, or the site’s inclusion in the state’s Forest Legacy area. Nothing And then allowed Statewide Planning to address the State Forest plan (part of the State Guide Plan) and submit that the project would not be inconsistent with the policies and goals of ANY part of the State Guide Plan.

    What this means is that the “highest level of government” that Mr. Boudreau speaks of is the Governor, and as far as DEM Forest Environment is concerned, that’s just fine. If the US Forest Service doesn’t want to address climate change, we won’t either.

    So yes, vote the bums out. But there must be some reconciliation of the issue of managing forests for resources and managing them to address climate change. And that means voting for the people who understand the climate crisis we are in, and the courage to lead state government in a crisis mode and direct resource managers accordingly.

    As I always remind people, Aldo Leopold said 70 years ago that, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." Seventy years and we still haven’t learned that it is the extraction of natural resources, the abuse of land, that has brought us to this crisis, and it is damn well time for natural resource managers to recognize this and stop writing bogus plans.

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