Rhode Island Needs to Act on Forest Conservation
Recently approved Forest Action Plan cites the pressures caused by development
March 26, 2021
Insects, disease, and weather have decimated chunks of Rhode Island’s forestland — think gypsy and winter moths, American chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease, and storms — but fragmentation caused by relentless sprawl is the biggest threat to the health of the state’s forests.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month approved the plan Rhode Island will use during the next 10 years to guide forest management priorities. It identifies the challenges and threats to the state’s nearly 390,000 acres of forestland.
Despite being the second-most urbanized state, Rhode Island remains more than 50 percent forested. But, as the state’s most-recent Forest Action Plan highlights, there are mounting pressures on this valuable economic and environmental resource — most notably from new development that rejects already-disturbed areas in favor of forested ones.
A 2019 report found that nearly 2,000 acres of core forest was converted to other land uses between 2011 and 2018. Since 2017, when an unenforceable executive order encouraged the state to attain 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2020, ground-mounted solar arrays have become a growing threat to forested land.
These solar installations “are becoming a source of forest loss to achieve Rhode Island’s clean energy goals,” according to the 148-page Rhode Island 2020 Forest Action Plan.
As of 2019, 150 ground-mounted solar arrays were generating 58 megawatts on 262 acres, much of which was formerly forested. Those 58 megawatts represent 6 percent of the projected state goal of 1,000 megawatts of solar energy by last year. It currently takes about 4.5 acres to produce 1 megawatt of energy, and other solar projects have been built, approved, or proposed during the past 15 months.
Rhode Island’s renewable-energy portfolio is currently at 933 megawatts, according to the Office of Energy Resources, which expects to reach the 1,000-megawatt target by the end of this year.
Another state goal, introduced last year, calls for all electric energy from renewables by 2030 — another target that could increase demand for more ground-mounted solar and mean the clear-cutting of more forestland.
Rhode Island’s 386,373 acres of forest provide a host of priceless services: drinking water protection, improved air quality and public health, carbon sequestration and other climate-change mitigation benefits, habitat for native wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor recreation.
For instance, 70 percent of Rhode Islanders get their drinking water from reservoirs protected by forests. This service and all the others suffer when forests become fragmented. Fragmentation also invites invasive species, such as multiflora rose, honeysuckle, and Japanese barberry, to take over.
The 2020 Forest Action Plan has three strategic goals:
Conserve and manage working forest landscapes for multiple values and uses. Forest landscapes, whether under public or private management, “must be conserved to protect landscape functionality, habitat and environmental benefits.”
Protect forests from threats.
Enhance public benefits from trees and forests. Support and promote the management and retention of forestland.
While 56 percent of the state is forested, 70 percent of that land is unprotected. Better protecting Rhode Island’s forests requires working in partnership with private property owners, as an estimated 38,000 families and individuals own 68 percent of the state’s forestland. This effort often means incentivizing landowners to keep their property forested and well managed.
A bill, designed to help Rhode Island better conserve its forestland, has been introduced in the General Assembly. Among other things, the Forest Conservation Act, prepared by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and Scott Millar, director of community assistance and conservation for Grow Smart Rhode Island, calls for the creation of a forest conservation commission to help landowners conserve forests in perpetuity.
“Rhode Island’s forests have been referred to as the invisible green giant for too long,” Millar wrote in a March 17 letter to the chair of the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee. “Meaning they provide immeasurable values but have been taken for granted as something that’s just a green backdrop until they are cleared for another use. However, the forest is an ecosystem where the sum of all its values is far greater than any single attribute.”
Besides identifying the threats to forestland, the recently approved action plan describes forest resources, looks at management techniques, and establishes goals for investing resources where they can be most effective to achieve conservation goals.
The following are some interesting tidbits from the plan:
A slow decrease in forestland acres has occurred since the 1970s because of permanent land-use conversions for development and infrastructure.
Seventy-five percent of Rhode Island’s trees range from 40-80 years old with only 2 percent between 0-20 years old. This disparity affects wildlife needing early successional habitat, and also indicates fewer landowners are harvesting for timber production.
An average acre of Rhode Island forestland absorbs 1.3 metric tons of atmospheric carbon.
"since the 1970s we lost forest to development and infrastructure" but it didn’t note underlying this is population growth. In 1980 RI had 947,000 people, about 1.050,000 now. Adding over100,000 more people has an impact!
As I have before, I’ll call attention to transportation and corporate policy that facilitating sprawl and deforestation: e.g. widening of Route 7 to accommodate Fidelity, building Route 99 for CVS, the I-295 interchange for Citizens Bank, all enabling big companies to move to the fringes, and even now, despite climate change imperatives, RIDOT’s 1950s thinking is prioritizing highway expansion – I-95 widening begins today, expanding capacity on Routes 195, 295, 4, 37, 146 is now in the RIDOT plan (while attacking transit and shifting funds away from bike projects) likely resulting in more sprawl and forest loss
At the time of European settlement in this landscape that native people had thrived in for ten thousand years, most of the forests were in an old-growth condition. Today, Rhode Island has no old-growth forest, and very little forest that is 150-300 years old. Protecting all of its current forest and farmland and allowing significant forest to develop naturally with no management should be a much bigger priority than ensuring that the state continue to support young and successional habitat.
I am all for the Forestry Act and its goals. However, I very much have doubts that it alone will be of really significant help. The State, through DEM, with this act or not, has no regulatory authority over the forest or any other landscape except in the matter of wetlands. The real authority to preserve forest by regulation—outside of the State’s ability to buy it— rests with local governments through their Comprehensive Plans, their land development ordinances supposedly in coordination with those Plans, and the decision making of Planning and Zoning Boards, and Town Councils.
Conspicuously missing in that process? Conservation Commissions.
With very few exceptions—a situation explored in detail in the environmental witness testimony during the Energy Facility Siting Board’s hearings of the Clear River Energy Center power plant proposal—Rhode Island conservation commissions, at all levels of local land use decision making, do not exploit the advisory powers given them by statute.
A State Forests Commission, with only the most paltry staff support—like most of DEM’s divisions perennially on the same starvation diets—just isn’t going to accomplish much if they cannot connect with the one body in our various municipalities instituted to look after their local forests. So over here you have the professional expertise. And over there you have the amateur enthusiasm. But in between…
Read the EFSB Clear River Energy Center hearings transcript of the cross examination of DEM Deputy Director for Fish and Wildlife, Jay Osenkowski. The crucial but unexploited asset for the protection of our forests that local Conservation Commissions represent is outlined in the question and answer exchanges between Invenergy attorney, Elizabeth Noonan, and Osenskowski.
The forest conservation act Senate bill #470, House # 5760 would achieve the following:
Recognize the multitude of forest values in State law and the need to maintain these values for future generations. Nothing currently in State law recognizes forest values.
It will require DEM to work with a forest conservation commission to:
• Recommend new funding sources to conserve forests
• Identify incentives to encourage forest landowners to maintain their land
• Encourage forest conservation as a means to fight climate change
• Increase and create new markets for Rhode Island forest products to store carbon long-term and create new jobs
• Expand urban and community forestry programs
• The bill provides incentives to encourage positive outcomes with no restrictions or regulations
This would establish a very strong foundation to improve forest conservation in RI
We need an organization like Save the Bay. We need citizen participation and focus on inland state parks. Now is an opportune time to raise consciousness about walking trails and camping opportunities – activities that inspire grassroots support.
We need a group that can layout steps that individual citizens can take at the municipal level in order to fight developers with unlimited budgets to hire lawyers who know how to work the system. And…there should be groups that teach kids in schools to work for conservation in our forests – a group analogous to Clean Ocean Access.
Is it literally impossible for humans to learn from mistakes of the past? We are not solving the problem of climate change if we are contributing to it by clear cutting large tracts of land.
They thought plastic was the great new invention in the 50’s….
I have had solar panels placed on two homes and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I hope when they are at the end of their life, someone will know how to reuse / recycle them but I do worry about that….
Why haven’t they figured out how to put solar panels on large buildings, large factories, abandoned industrial sites, over large parking lots etc?
Because it’s more complicated, more expensive, and more of a PIA to figure out. But in the long run…. for our planet, for our children, and all the future generations, it would be worth it.
Totally support the bill, Scott, the development of which I have been following through YouTube broadcast of Forest Partnership meetings, and greatly appreciate the yeoman’s work you are doing up on Smith Hill to bring it to fruition …And I was indeed a little anxious, as I clicked the "post comment" button, that the construction of my thoughts was negative regards the bill. Fortunately, Donna, below, has better expressed the point I attempt to get across—that we need a political strategy engaging the larger interested public so our legal, law making strategy has the needed muscle behind it. We need citizen participation and focus on inland state parks… We need a group that can layout steps that individual citizens can take at the municipal level in order to fight developers with unlimited budgets to hire lawyers who know how to work the system."
A telling example: It was the Yeltsin administration, wasn’t it, when the K-77 arrived at dockside in Providence, caught fire, sank, and is still leaking pollution despite DEM’s having the authority on paper to do something about it? Politically and legally, DEM in that case like a single hound pursuing a fox. With no hue and cry to summon the rest of the pack its pursuit is hopeless. While I’m not sure we need yet another "Save the" organization, STB did indeed extend its writ to our upland watersheds not long ago. What if they and TNC—which works intimately with DEM to develop our Wildlife Action Plans—were to put some serious resources into educating the state’s Conservation Commissions about our Wildlife Action Plan and how they can use its resources to effect forest protection by advocating their incorporation into local Comprehensive Plans and legally binding local development ordinances? As Donna alludes, local people care and volunteer. But they are divided among 39 municipal entities and lack sufficient connection with expertise to improve their effectiveness and grow the needed local political muscle without which their fellow voters keep returning the same clueless representatives to Smith Hill.
Our country forested section of road in Hopkinton had one house visible from the street in the early 70s, there are now more than 30, seven alone built in the last few years. Our small town zoning ordinances encourage this kind of low density development that reduces the amount of forest. The people in these houses have to drive everywhere, increasing fossil fuel use. Incentivizing cluster or higher density housing zoning even in rural towns would preserve forests, reduce fossil fuel use and improve community structure.
I have been a reader of EcoRI for many years but I have never posted a comment. When I read this piece I was compelled to write. Years ago I was on the South Kingstown Town Council. I served 3 terms. Before that I served on the Planning Board for 5 years, and before that I served on the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Commission. In the beginning I knew next to nothing but I had lots of energy and enthusiasm and I was interested in learning more.
I agree with Bill Eccleston, Conservation Commissions are the key. We need to empower them. In South Kingstown, Conservation commissions make recommendations to the Planning Board, which really doesn’t have much time to plan, because essentially it is a subdivision review board. The Planning Board can make recommendations to the Council but it is the Council that makes the final decision. Sometimes all the work that is put in by the members of the boards and commissions goes to naught by the time it reaches Council level.
It is time to put some resources into educating Conservation Commission members. They need to understand the statues and how to utilize the powers given to them. They need to become familiar with the Wildlife Action Plan.They are well meaning people who want to accomplish something and make a difference in their communities. They need information and tools to help them so it. Tools to make them more effective and better able to lead. I agree that including forest protection into local Comprehensive Plans and legally binding local development ordinances is a good approach. The Con Com are the right place to start this process.
Special thanks to Scott Millar for all the work he’s done over the years to help protect RI’s environment. He’s an environmental hero!