Nature’s Needs and Human Wants Vie for Space Among Rhode Island’s Protected Places
Management of these open-to-the-public lands, with miles and miles of trails and too much bad behavior, is a delicate balance as demand for their use grows
September 19, 2021
The lead to Christopher Ketcham’s story in the April edition of Harper’s Magazine reveals the stress a well-meaning idea has placed on millions of acres of open space. He quotes a retired ranger as saying, “If you love a place, don’t make it a national park.”
The other 111 words in his lead and rest of the story highlights traffic jams, idling cars belching fumes, fights over parking spots, and hiking trails littered with plastics, discarded clothing and toilet paper. At Utah’s Zion National Park in 2017 a popular trail had to be temporarily closed so 8 tons of human excrement from public bathrooms could be airlifted out of the park. He documents increasingly widespread soil erosion and vegetative trampling by feet and tires.
The eye-opening article comes with the headline “The Business of Scenery.” It makes the case for why the management of America’s national parks — the system includes 423 areas covering nearly 85 million acres, in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — needs to change.
Ketcham’s reporting got ecoRI News thinking about the public space protected in Rhode Island, much of which is owned and managed by four entities: the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM); the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; The Nature Conservancy; and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
How do these agencies, organizations and others manage the need for preservation and the desire for human use?
Hunting for space
Last year the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed the expansion of hunting at Rhode Island’s five national wildlife refuges. The decision upset a group of neighbors who live near the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown and worried users of Sachuest Point in Middletown.
The plan, which was eventually approved, illustrated the intricacies of managing what is and isn’t allowed on protected public space. Whatever uses are permitted or prohibited, there is inevitable pushback — too much access or too much preservation; not enough space for all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles; hunters lurking on the periphery of private property.
Former DEM staffer Rick Enser, for one, believes USFWS and to a lesser extent DEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife largely manage their protected areas to make money — namely, the selling of hunting and fishing licenses.
The former South Kingstown resident who moved to Vermont a few years ago isn’t against hunting, especially of white-tailed deer, but he takes issue with the “overblown significance” it is given when it comes to how federal- and state-owned land is managed.
“Biodiversity doesn’t make money, so protecting biodiversity isn’t a focus,” said Enser, who worked at DEM from 1979 to 2007. “There’s a lot of money in hunting. Federal money supports ecosystems that support the economy, so hunting and other recreational uses are prioritized.”
He noted USFWS relies heavily on an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and archery gear (the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act; between fiscal 1939 and fiscal 2019 $18.8 billion was collected) and excise taxes on sport fishing equipment (the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act) for funding.
Enser said those tax dollars are largely funneled into creating habitat for hunters and other earmarks that do little to protect biodiversity.
The ecologist isn’t against people enjoying nature or playing in it, but he believes too much attention is devoted to what humans want while nature’s needs and the services it provides are routinely ignored.
He noted the preference of early successional habitat — grasslands, fields, pastures, shrub thickets and young forest — for those who want to sell hunting licenses and associated special permits. He said this kind of habitat is overvalued because it generates agency funding.
While successional habitat requires frequent disturbance to be maintained, it is also home to species popular with Rhode Island hunters: deer; New England cottontail; wild turkey; American woodcock; quail; pheasant; ruffed grouse.
Enser said the growing infatuation with shrubland habitat has come while Rhode Island’s forests are being diminished and fragmented. He noted Rhode Island has “very little forest left that is more than a hundred years old.”
“Rhode Island really doesn’t have true mature forestland,” he said. “We don’t allow it to grow. We’re always forcing ecosystems back to fields and shrubland to create habitat for people who like to hunt. It’s a well-oiled machine that creates hunting grounds over the importance of ecosystem services.”
Charlie Vandemoer, manager of the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes all five federal refuges in the state, said USFWS properties are managed first and foremost for fish and wildlife conservation, as public recreation is secondary. ATVs and bicycles are prohibited. He said hunting, especially of deer so they don’t devour native plantings, is part of the management strategy.
State and federal officials have said early successional habitat is needed to help stem the decline of shrubland-dependent wildlife such as New England cottontail and the American woodcock.
According to the USFWS, shrubland and young forest habitats in the Northeast have declined dramatically over the past century, primarily as a result of the decline of agricultural land use, development pressures and wetland filling.
The federal agency has identified early successional habitat as a high priority for conservation. One such plan is the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge. The 10 refuges in six states — Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and New York — would acquire up to 15,000 private acres through various methods, including conservation easements and donations.
While the acquisition plan has been approved, no lands have yet been obtained, according to Vandemoer. Hunting and fishing would be allowed in the proposed Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge.
Vandemoer noted the fees collected on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, tags, stamps and permits and the taxes generated by the sale of related merchandise are the primary source of funding for most state wildlife conservation efforts, including those in Rhode Island.
Last year Rhode Island’s five USFWS refuges saw a record 643,000 visitors — a figure Vandemoer attributes to the pandemic, as the properties are seeing a similar pace of visitors this year. Of those visitors in 2020, he said, only 316 were there to hunt.
“It’s a challenge to provide as much recreation as we can while meeting our goals, which is fish and wildlife conservation,” Vandemoer said.
Hunting, however, isn’t the only point of contention among those who visit wildlife refuges, preserves, and other public spaces protected from development.
The underlying problem leading to most user strife is the density of the state’s population — second behind only New Jersey — and a lack of open space available to meet the wants of all users. Never mind nature’s needs.
The smorgasbord of uses allowed on protected lands can be different from property to property. Change is inevitable, angst unavoidable, disagreement common, and bad behavior a problem.
Rhode Island’s collection of protected space open to the public — a patchwork of land owned by taxpayers and nonprofits — is used by hunters with guns and bows, anglers, photographers, birders, walkers, hikers, joggers, mountain bikers, mushroom hunters, picnickers, horseback riders, swimmers, dog walkers, rock climbers and off-road riders.
Dogs let off leash disturb ground-nesting birds, and quiet meditation is interrupted by the roar of ATVs. Thoughtless visitors leave litter and pet waste behind, and the illegal dumping of trash, appliances, furniture and construction debris leaves scars.
Use conflict, however, is just one side of the management issue. Rhode Island’s protected spaces are more than just human playgrounds. They are home to flora and fauna, and provide priceless ecosystem services such as stormwater management, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, and water and air purification.
Protection vs. use
The debate over preservation vs. conservation goes back nearly 150 years, to when the United States became the first country to establish a national park, Yellowstone in the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
And so began the wrangling: Should wild areas be preserved for their inherent qualities (preservation), or should they be conserved for their resources (conservation)? The argument essentially comes down to should nature be protected without human disturbances — a viewpoint supported by John Muir, co-founder of the Sierra Club — or should it be used for “the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time,” as Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, believed?
With a growing population encroaching on protected places and demand for their use increasing — notably since the pandemic hit last year — Pinchot’s belief in conservation seems to have prevailed here and across the country.
Targeted land protection efforts in Rhode Island began in the late 1970s, when The Nature Conservancy (TNC) joined the state in identifying the most valuable tracts of land to protect. Enser said the idea was to work proactively with landowners to protect priority sites before they were developed.
Prior to that, he said, land protection was done piecemeal without initially identifying the most important tracts, as the state accepted parcels that were offered by donation or at a bargain price. But as land became more expensive and landowners became more interested in selling than donating, a coordinated effort was needed to protect important properties. The funding for this effort was and still is largely funded by the federal government — most notably USFWS and the National Park Service — and green bonds approved by Rhode Island voters. It is also supported by private money raised by land trusts.
During his 28 years at DEM, Enser worked mostly as the coordinator of the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program, an office that documented the state’s biodiversity and provided guidance for the preservation of rare and endangered species. Its creation, in 1978, was spearheaded by TNC and championed by Ed Wood, who was then the DEM director.
Enser’s work focused on protecting Rhode Island’s biological diversity through inventory, data collection, restoration work, environmental impact reviews and preservation planning. DEM’s involvement in the Natural Heritage Program disappeared in 2007 when Enser retired — the program a victim of budget cuts and a shift in protected space management.
When the program was born, small-scale management was done, Enser said, to preserve the integrity of natural habitats and rare species populations. Over time, management of protected properties came to mean greater support for recreational use.
How a protected property is managed is largely tied to funding, according to Lisa Primiano, who worked at DEM for 25 years (1992-2017). When land donations and buying properties on the cheap gave way to real-estate deals and conservation easements, real money was needed to acquire properties of natural importance or their development rights.
Primiano, the former chief of DEM’s Division of Planning & Development and former deputy chief of the agency’s Land Conservation and Acquisition Program, said this requires negotiation. Lots of negotiating, depending on the funding source(s) and the location, between municipalities, land trusts, the federal government, landowners and the community. It also means discussions between DEM divisions — Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife, Forestry and Parks.
“The funding source drives use requirements,” Primiano said. “Public access is granted if that is want the funder wants. It’s all about negotiating a balance.”
Michelle Sheehan, current supervisor of DEM’s Land Conservation and Acquisition Program, agreed that efforts to protect space is about collaboration.
“There are only so many resources and everyone wants to use it differently,” she said. “It’s about figuring out the ideal use.”
These negotiations — about how many acres to open to the public, what uses should be allowed, how much parking should be made available, should a property be left untouched to provide climate resiliency — can lead to increased hunting on federal refuges or closing a property to the public to protect wetlands. The public land surrounding the Scituate Reservoir is closed to recreational use, even passive activities, to protect Rhode Island’s largest drinking water supply.
“Not everyone agrees on all aspects of what to do with a property,” Primiano said. “All these different aspects need to be negotiated.”
The major players
Today, the four main managers of protected space in Rhode Island — DEM, TNC, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and USFWS — own some 250 properties that total about 112,400 acres.
DEM manages 90 properties: 52 wildlife management areas, including both state-owned property and federal lands managed by the Division of Fish and Wildlife; 25 state parks; eight state beaches; and five state campgrounds. The agency also manages 207 saltwater and freshwater boat ramps and fishing areas and three bike paths — the Blackstone River Bikeway, the East Bay Bike Path and the Washington Secondary/Trestle Trail Bike Path.
A total of 89,457 acres are owned or jointly owned by DEM, including private property upon which the agency holds various conservation easements.
Michael Healey, DEM’s chief public affairs officer, said the rules governing these properties are similar, varying slightly depending on their function. Among the things prohibited at areas open to the public include alcohol, drones, washing or bathing in streams or ponds, unleashed dogs, paintball guns, and ATVs and dirt bikes.
He said use conflicts happen every day, from unauthorized motorized vehicles tearing up open space to people leaving litter behind to people swimming in areas where they shouldn’t be.
“Everyone’s definition of an acceptable use is different,” Healey said. “Why can’t I have a motorized toy boat on Olney Pond at Lincoln Woods? Because there will be a regatta of toy boats if we allow one person to do it. People want what they want when they want it.”
Maintaining and monitoring the use of 90 properties totaling nearly 90,000 acres, plus boat ramps, fishing areas and bike paths, is challenging with a skeleton staff. Ken Ayars, chief of DEM’s divisions of Agriculture and Forest Environment, noted three people manage the 40,000 acres under the purview of those two divisions.
To help share the maintenance and monitoring required of the public space owned and managed by DEM, Ayers said the state agency has partnered with recreational groups, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club, the New England Mountain Bike Association and the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association to clear trails, fix footbridges and repair damage caused by washouts.
He said this partnership, besides maintaining space for public use, has allowed the users and managers of public property to have an ongoing dialogue, share investment in special places and come to a better understanding of what this space means to humans, wildlife and environmental health. It also has eased use conflicts.
TNC has 24 nature preserves, totaling some 8,000 acres, that are open to the public. About 3,000 more acres spread across 41 other properties are closed to the public and managed as wildlife habitat. The smallest is less than an acre and the largest is about 200 acres.
Tim Mooney, marketing and communications manager for TNC’s Rhode Island chapter, said uses at each public site vary, depending on the size of the preserve, the sensitivity of the habitat, what wildlife resources are being managed and the nature of the trail system, such as a boardwalk or cart path.
All of TNC’s Rhode Island preserves are open to hiking, trail running, birdwatching and photography. Leashed dogs are allowed at most. At 10 of the preserves, some form of hunting, coordinated with DEM, is allowed.
Horseback riding is allowed at a few properties, while mountain biking is generally discouraged, according to Mooney. Collecting historic artifacts, fungi and plants is not allowed.
The Nature Conservancy often partners with DEM on buying the development rights of properties of importance, such as last year when they combined resources to buy 28 acres of forested land for public recreational use in West Greenwich near the Tillinghast Pond Management Area, TNC’s largest nature preserve in Rhode Island, and the Wickaboxet Wildlife Management Area.
The Audubon Society of Rhode Island (ASRI) manages 13 properties — plus a 200-acre refuge in Seekonk, Mass. — that total nearly 3,200 acres of protected space open to the public. ASRI, which is independent of the National Audubon Society, owns another 83 properties totaling about 6,200 acres of protected space in the Ocean State. These properties are not open to the public unless special permission is given.
ASRI’s collection of 96 Rhode Island properties and some 9,400 acres doesn’t include lands protected through conservation easements.
Allowed uses on its public properties include hiking on marked trails, photography, birdwatching, and picnicking at designated areas at the Nature Center and Aquarium at the Claire D. McIntosh Wildlife Refuge in Bristol. ASRI’s largest public property is the 1,010-acre Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge in Exeter.
Not permitted at Audubon Society properties in Rhode Island are dogs, horses, motorized vehicles and bicycles. Camping, hunting, fishing, trapping and jogging are prohibited. Collecting historic artifacts, fungi and plants isn’t allowed.
Scott Ruhren, ASRI’s senior director of conservation, noted that not all of the pressure put on protected properties comes from inside their boundaries.
He recently took ecoRI News on a tour of the Touisset Marsh Wildlife Refuge in Warren. Before we ventured into the 66-acre refuge, Ruhren spoke about how the neighborhood has changed in the three decades since ASRI was gifted the then-cow pasture and hayfields.
In 1990, this area of Warren near the Kickemuit River was mostly smaller, summer homes. In the years since, bigger, full-time residences were built. Traffic increased. More delivery trucks. More development. More noise. More stormwater runoff.
Within Audubon’s 13 Rhode Island properties open to the public, Ruhren and his full-time crew of five deal with trail maintenance and the typical wear and tear that comes with open space used by people walking, hiking and observing nature.
He said managing public open space for both nature and human use is challenging. He said just managing protected space for wildlife is daunting, noting that, for example, creating bird habitat could come at the cost of habitat used by butterflies and other pollinators. It is a constant balancing act.
The frustration comes with visitors who don’t follow the rules, by littering or creating their own trails, and those who take inappropriate behavior to the next level, like the motorist who recently took his pickup for a joyride at the Touisset Marsh Wildlife Refuge.
Dogs in the refuges is a problem — they stress wildlife, disturb ground-nesting birds, their waste is often left behind, and some visitors are afraid of dogs, especially those off leash — so Ruhren and his staff have posted plenty of signs noting dogs are not allowed. More than a few have been ripped down, including some less than a week after being posted and others in the Long Pond Woods Wildlife Refuge in Hopkinton that were hung 10 feet high to supposedly avoid this problem.
Ruhren recalled an interaction he had with a woman walking her dog at one of ASRI’s properties. He told her dogs are not allowed. She responded by saying she would be back with her dog anyway. He has stumbled upon dog poop hastily buried in the sand and picked up poop bags left along trails.
He noted that people who create their own trails — often neighbors looking for easier access to one of the properties — opens up space for invasives to take hold. Ruhren and his staff are already maintaining about 30 acres of marked trail, where multiflora rose, mile-a-minute vine, oriental bittersweet and tree-of-heaven like to take root.
“Invasives tend to follow human disturbances,” he said.
Despite frustrations created by inconsiderate visitors, Ruhren said most people follow the rules and appreciate the beauty of nature.
The USFWS oversees five properties with about 2,600 acres of open space:
Block Island National Wildlife Refuge (New Shoreham): allowed uses include fishing, hunting, photography, beach combing/hiking, environmental education. There are no trails.
John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge (South Kingstown and Narragansett): hunting, fishing, photography, environmental education. There is a kayak ramp but no trails.
Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge (Charlestown): hunting, fishing, photography, environmental education, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing. There is a visitors center, trails for hiking, a kayak ramp and native plant gardens.
Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge (Middletown): fishing, fee system for night fishing program, photography, environmental education, cross-country skiing. There is a visitors center, hiking trails and native plant gardens. Two weeks of bow hunting are scheduled for November and December.
Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge (South Kingstown): fishing, photography, environmental education, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing. There is a public contact station with exhibits, trails for hiking, a seasonally open beach, restrooms and native plant gardens. Two weeks of bow hunting are scheduled for November and December.
Dogs are prohibited at all five USFWS properties.
Vandemoer said USFWS properties are part of Rhode Island’s quilt of open space. “The more land that is protected, the better off we are,” he said.
The protection of land in Rhode Island, however, isn’t the sole domain of the Big Four. Fifty-three land trusts, not including TNC’s Rhode Island chapter and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and conservation commissions protect some 1,650 properties covering about 34,000 acres, according to the Rhode Island Land Trust Council.
In fact, of the 91,000 acres or so of protected land in Rhode Island, including those protected by the state and federal governments, about 60 percent are held exclusively by a land trust or in partnership with a land trust.
Most land trusts in Rhode Island are run by volunteer boards either independent of a municipality, such as the nonprofit Burrillville Land Trust, or affiliated with a municipality, such as the North Providence Land Trust. The others, about 20 percent, have paid staff, such as the nonprofits Aquidneck Land Trust and South Kingstown Land Trust.
About half of Rhode Island’s land trusts hold fewer than 20 properties, according to a recent study conducted by the Rhode Island Land Trust Council. Some, such as Borders Farm Preservation Inc., Mount Hope Farm and the Neutaconkanut Hill Conservancy, protect just one property.
Some land trust property is closed to the public to preserve the environment, while much of it is open, for the human enjoyment of nature and to inspire visitors to revere the natural world.
“The conservation of land is important,” said Kate Sayles, executive director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council. “We encourage public use on land trust properties.”