It is Time to Pass the Old Growth Forest Protection Act to Save Biodiversity
January 8, 2024
Rhode Island is currently facing a biodiversity crisis. Rick Enser gave an excellent detailed analysis of this in his Nov. 30 opinion piece published in ecoRI News.
No rare or endangered species are safe on public land because Rhode Island is the only state in New England where no forests on state-owned land are protected from logging.
As acknowledged by the state Department of Environmental Management in a PowerPoint presentation at the Oct. 12 House Fire Commission meeting, “Currently, Rhode Island laws do not provide protection for forestland apart from existing wetland protection laws.”
Due to this, Rhode Island also has the distinction of being the only state in New England with no wildlands on public land, which are areas shaped by nature with minimal human interference where logging is prohibited. This was revealed in a report released last year based on research conducted by Harvard Forest, Highstead Foundation, Northeast Wilderness Trust, and Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities.
DEM’s preferred method of logging is clear-cutting, leading to deforestation, destruction of biodiversity, and massive carbon loss on state-owned land. Many of these clear-cut forests are not growing back due to the overpopulation of deer, with the deer eating the tree buds from the logged coppiced stumps, and invasive species outcompeting native species.
There is currently no state agency protecting biodiversity since DEM discontinued the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program in 2007. The Rhode Island Natural History Survey is no substitute for the Natural Heritage Program, nor does it want to be.
The survey, in a recent letter, stated, “To maintain its freedom to work with all parties, including the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the Survey has had a stated policy of non-advocacy for decades.”
It is very clear that biodiversity needs to be protected in Rhode Island and that we need a state agency that values native fauna and flora.
The 2024 Old Growth Forest Protection Act is the solution to Rhode Island’s biodiversity crisis.
Also, to address concerns that were raised in the past two iterations of the bill, this legislation doesn’t prohibit logging on all public forests. This bill would protect forests with rare ecological characteristics and habitats that contain rare and endangered species.
Here is what will be in the 2024 Old Growth Forest Protection Act:
The bill brings back the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program as a state agency separate from DEM.
A Natural Heritage Program, defined in state law, will be responsible for identifying, monitoring, and protecting biodiversity in Rhode Island. Only as its own state agency will the Natural Heritage Program be properly funded and staffed.
As Enser, who was coordinator of the Natural Heritage Program for 28 years, stated in his opinion piece, “An updated biodiversity strategy would require reestablishing a Natural Heritage Program, or similar initiative, that should be situated in a state office other than DEM, to reduce the natural resource bias and provide a balanced approach to how state-owned land are managed.”
Prohibits logging in old-growth forests on state- and municipally owned land.
Old-growth forests are important in protecting biodiversity, are less prone to wildfires, and store vast amounts of carbon, making them important carbon sinks. Old-growth forests also reflect the natural landscape of Rhode Island before European settlement.
In the bill, to be an old-growth forest, a forest must meet a minimum number of characteristics and be at least 5 acres in size. Only a small fraction of Rhode Island’s forests will meet the definition, but this legislation would protect those remaining forests.
The Natural Heritage Program would be required to inventory all old-growth forests on state land.
Amends the Natural Areas Protection Act of 1993 (NAPA) to make it functional.
While NAPA is a great piece of legislation which sets up a mechanism to create Natural Area Preserves to protect the state’s rare and unique habitats in their natural state where no logging would be permitted, the law has a major flaw. It gives the power of designating the Natural Area Preserves to the DEM director. The Old Growth Forest Protection Act would amend the NAPA to give the power of designating the Natural Area Preserves and management of those preserves to the Natural Heritage Program. A Natural Heritage Program with scientists who value biodiversity would be more willing to designate Natural Area Preserves.
A provision in the Old Growth Forest Protection Act would prohibit logging in the Natural Area Preserves. Also, as part of the bill, all current Natural Heritage Areas mapped on state-owned land would be immediately designated as Natural Area Preserves, protecting those areas from logging.
The Natural Heritage Program would be required to conduct inventories of forests scheduled to be logged on state-owned and municipal-owned land and will have final approval of all logging operations on state-owned land. The Natural Heritage Program, which would have a forest ecologist and ISA-certified arborist as part of its staff, would inventory all forests DEM plans to log before the logging operation takes place to make sure no old growth forests, Natural Heritage Areas, or other rare ecosystems are logged.
To prevent DEM from overriding the Natural Heritage Program’s recommendations, the Natural Heritage Program would have final approval over all logging operations on state-owned land to ensure the logging practices are not ecologically destructive. This would allow scientists to have final say over logging operations.
The Natural Heritage Program would be required by law to create a Biodiversity Protection Plan; maintain the Natural Heritage database; work with municipalities to create management plans for areas those municipalities desire to be Natural Area Preserves; create an official rare and endangered species list; create an invasive species list; be responsible for the state’s efforts in reducing the spread of non-aquatic invasive species; and be responsible for the state’s efforts to combat invasive diseases and insect infestations affecting native trees. The legislation would also incorporate forests as a priority into the 2021 Act on Climate law.
The Old Growth Forest Protection Act is our last hope to save the state’s biodiversity and natural forests. If we don’t act now and address the biodiversity crisis, we will lose our rare and endangered species. If we allow the state’s archaic logging practices to continue, we will lose our native natural forests in Rhode Island.
I ask all environmental groups to support this bill, which would create the first state law in Rhode Island’s history to protect forests and biodiversity.
It is time biodiversity became a priority in Rhode Island.
Nathan Cornell is president of the Old Growth Tree Society. He can be reached at [email protected].
Join the DiscussionView Comments
Your support keeps our reporters on the environmental beat.
Reader support is at the core of our nonprofit news model. Together, we can keep the environment in the headlines.