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.