Thank God It’s Friday: R.I. Land Trust Council’s First and Only Executive Director Headed to Retirement
June 27, 2021
When the state of Rhode Island threatened to build a new State Police barracks in the 8,300-acre Big River Management Area in Kent County in 2004, the newly established Rhode Island Land Trust Council and its first executive director, Rupert Friday, took the lead in fighting the development proposal.
It was a six-month battle to convince then-Gov. Donald Carcieri and other power brokers that this was what one state representative called “the wrong project in the wrong place.” The success of the opposition effort led to the strengthening of other weakly protected conservation lands.
“It was Rupert’s fine touch, his soft, humbled approach and confidence that made all the difference in this work,” said Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust who was also president of the Land Trust Council at the time. “Rupert was our eyes and ears to all that was going on in Rhode Island regarding the environment, open space and protection of our natural world. He is the same to this day.”
But he won’t be for much longer. Friday will retire from his leadership role with the Land Trust Council early next month, after nearly two decades of building coalitions to protect open space in Rhode Island and serving as a mentor to the state’s 45 land trusts. He will be succeeded as executive director by Kate Sayles, the agriculture and forestry program manager for the Northern Rhode Island Conservation District.
“I’ve been doing this work for a lot of years, and it seemed like it was time,” said Friday, 65, who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in Narragansett. “I want to spend time doing things that I enjoy doing, though I have no specific plans. I’ll probably spend more time helping land trusts with their trails.”
Friday started his career as an environmental educator and park naturalist in western Pennsylvania, before getting involved in the “smart growth” movement and finding his way to Rhode Island to work on transportation issues for the Foundation for Newport.
When the Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy and land trust leaders around the state agreed an organization was needed to support local land trusts, the Land Trust Council was established and Friday was hired as its director.
“At that time, nearly all land trusts were entirely volunteer, so there was a need for a coalition for networking and capacity building to help land trusts be more effective,” Friday said.
He spent the next 17 years setting up workshops for land trust leaders about conservation strategies and organizational development, monitoring legislation and policy that impacted conservation lands and networking with the land trust community so the various independent groups could get to know each other.
Meg Kerr, the senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, has worked closely with Friday since before the Land Trust Council was formed. They even joined forces to create and manage the annual Rhode Island Land and Water Summit.
“Rupert’s broad knowledge of land use, land conservation and nonprofit management was an enormous asset to Rhode Island,” she said. “As director of the Land Trust Council, he helped draft and lobbied for passage of bills that strengthened the state’s local land conservation movement. He established and grew the council to support grassroots land conservation in the state, creating an organization that will thrive into the future.”
Kerr pointed to Friday’s work with the administrators of the ExploreRI website as another highlight in his career. He was able to add all of the trails on land trust properties to the website’s listing of walking and paddling routes, gaining visibility for the state’s land trusts and opening the eyes of hikers to additional trails to explore.
Friday was also a leader in building support for numerous open space bonds and other green bond initiatives, which were vital to providing funding to help Rhode Island land trusts buy additional properties. And he played a key role in the passage of legislation to protect conservation land held by nonprofit organizations from claims for adverse possession or squatter’s rights, which had been a troublesome issue for some land trusts.
“That was a huge accomplishment and a big protection for conservation organizations big and small,” said Scott Comings, associate state director of The Nature Conservancy. “But the one thing about Rupert that helped him be effective in this work is that he’s really hopeful and can see the real positive side of things. That’s something I feel like he brought to every challenge, that despite the difficulties, there’s an opportunity, too.”
Friday is spending his last weeks before retirement organizing the annual Land Trust Days, a two-month summer celebration of open space designed to encourage Rhode Islanders to visit land trust properties around the state. He is also promoting Rhode Island Walks, a resource for Rhode Island’s health-care providers to make it easier to encourage their patients to spend time outdoors in nature and take walks as part of their health care.
“People see protected lands as vacant land that something should be done with, so increasing awareness that these vacant lands are important to our communities is one issue I worked to address,” Friday said. “And helping land trusts develop trails so community residents can enjoy these places that are protected.”
Despite the long days and challenging issues he has confronted, Friday can’t help but reflect on all the people who have played a positive role in his career.
“The best part of this job is getting out and working with the volunteers leading the land trusts around the state,” he said. “They’re great folks who are passionate about protecting special places in their communities. And when I get to go out there with them, seeing those places is really cool.”