R.I. Natural History Survey is Committed to Sound Science


The following was submitted as a letter to the editor of ecoRI News.

Nathan Cornell, in his Oct. 8 commentary, is plainly frustrated by state agencies not doing what he wants, and he throws the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, a potential ally, under the bus. He gets many facts wrong and deliberately misleads readers about others.

The Rhode Island Natural History Survey (the Survey) is a member-supported, 501(c)(3) nonprofit, not a branch of any government, as Cornell himself acknowledges. It was founded nearly 30 years ago. The Survey supports public involvement in science and the use of science to address environmental challenges. It does this through research, biological inventory, databases and publications, and public programs including Rhode Island BioBlitz. 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. The Survey’s contributions to conservation come from our commitment to sound science, our capacity for networking and collaboration, and the generosity of our members and friends who understand this and fund our work.

Cornell asserts that the Survey does not “speak up” and just “stands by” while DEM and other environmental groups are “destroying” forests. The question of whether DEM, or any of these other entities, is really destroying forests aside, the fact is the Survey speaks to the state and many other parties, without compensation, in dozens of venues annually. These range from the Plant Conservation Volunteer Task Force to the Forest Conservation Commission, wherever it looks like our expertise and networks could make a difference. State agencies hear from the Survey all the time, but the Survey is not responsible for state policies.

Further, Cornell suggests that the Survey’s principles are phony because we receive money from DEM. While claiming the Survey’s principles are corrupt, he neglects to inform readers as to what the money is for: 1) developing a quick way to assess the health of wetlands to inform habitat conservation and climate resilience; 2) researching coyote ecology to reduce negative interactions between people and coyotes; and 3) implementing the 2015 RI Wildlife Action Plan to protect habitat, including forests, from a range of threats including logging. This money comes ultimately from federal sources, not the state budget, and it goes directly to scientists and staff for specific projects. It is not to support the Survey’s general operations.

Cornell points to the Survey’s Forest Health Works Project (FHWP) as an example of the “timber industry’s” influence. Here are the facts: from 2009 to 2012, the FHWP brought more than $670,000 in Obama-era stimulus money into Rhode Island. The Survey used it to train and hire landscapers, who were out of work due to the real estate crash, to remove invasive plants in forests and replace them with native plants … native plants that FHWP paid local nurseries, which were also in deep economic trouble, to grow. Starting in 2022, the FHWP is bringing $2.9 million federal dollars into Rhode Island to protect as much ecologically sensitive forest land as possible from development. If the timber industry were to have a footprint in Rhode Island, it probably would not look like this.

Cornell complains that the Survey did not support his Old Growth Forest Protection Act in the General Assembly, which is true. In fact, his legislation, which started in 2022 with bill H7066, was unsupportable by any group seriously concerned with environmental conservation success. The bill defined forest types that did not match known forest types in Rhode Island, called virtually any wooded plot with trees over 100 years old “old growth,” and required Rhode Island cities and towns to apply for permission to cut trees on any lot greater than 1 acre. The Survey’s executive director spent hours trying to explain these and other problems to Cornell and suggesting alternative approaches, but only small adjustments were made to the bills.

Some time ago, before his old growth forest campaign consumed him, Cornell sought the Survey out for help interpreting tree cores he was drilling out of large trees in Warwick. Because the Survey is science-, not advocacy-driven, the Survey’s executive director spent a couple of afternoons showing him how to get useful cores, mount them, and count their rings. If you are working on something related to Rhode Island’s animals, plants, and ecosystems, and you value sound science and ecosystem information, tell us how we can help you. The Survey will provide what data, connections, and logistical capacity we can, whether you are an old growth forest advocate or a state agency, a land trust, an amateur naturalist, or an environmental consultant.

David W. Gregg is the executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. This letter was also signed by the survey’s board of directors and staff.


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  1. Excellent response from RINHS. Nathan Cornell’s opinion piece was misguided and misdirected to the point of being bizarre. He has been myopic and dogmatic in his pursuit of a forestry bill that would do nothing to forward the mission of conservation in the state other than takeaway what is potentially one of the most important tools in the toolbox of land managers and wildlife stewards – forestry. Lashing out at RINHS, one of the true allies of biodiversity and ecosystem conservation in Rhode Island, shows his lack of maturity and understanding.

  2. Agree with Scott. RINHS’s response to Mr. Cornell is spot on. Cornell has been deliberately undermining conservation efforts and alienating all of the folks that could help him. He needs a better way of working if he is to help the forests of RI.

  3. Thorough and very well written. The entire RINHS staff continues to display a great deal of professionalism and insight in these situations.

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