The Natural History Survey Has Turned Its Back on R.I.’s Native Forests
October 8, 2023
The Rhode Island Natural History Survey (NHS) is known as the main go-to organization in Rhode Island regarding the state’s native biodiversity. Yet, the NHS refuses to protect the state’s natural heritage areas where rare and endangered species live.
While I have been disappointed in most of Rhode Island’s so called environmental groups for refusing to protect the state’s natural ecology and instead helping to enrich the timber industry, the NHS is the group I am most disappointed with because protecting native biodiversity is what this group is mainly supposed to be about.
When the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program was defunded by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) in 2007, it was expected that the Rhode Island NHS would take up the reins of the program in identifying, monitoring, and protecting native biodiversity. Unfortunately, this never happened.
Another problem is that the NHS is a nonprofit, not a government agency or entity like the Natural Heritage Program, so it is unable to create policy or enforce regulations. However, that wouldn’t stop them from advocating for native biodiversity or being contracted by the state to do the work of the Natural Heritage Program, but the NHS has no interest in doing this.
Currently, DEM’s preferred method of managing state-owned land is to cut it down – logging – and all state-owned land is open to logging. This includes the state’s natural heritage areas which were identified by the Natural Heritage Program as being habitats where rare and endangered species live.
DEM calls clearcutting “thinning,” even though the forest is gone, and in many cases, never grows back. Clearcutting causes deforestation, resulting in large amounts of carbon being released into the atmosphere as air pollution. This contributes to climate change, native biodiversity loss, invasive plants spreading on the forest floor, water and soil degradation, and, importantly, making the landscape more prone to wildfires, not less.
Neither the NHS nor most of the state’s environmental groups seem concerned by DEM’s clearcutting of our native natural forests on state-owned land, which any true environmentalist should be horrified by.
You would also think the NHS would be concerned that all the natural heritage areas are open to logging and therefore all rare and endangered species on state-owned land are at risk, yet the NHS doesn’t seem to care. I have repeatedly asked through emails and phone calls for the NHS to publicly support the creation of the Natural Area Preserves in compliance with the Natural Areas Protection Act of 1993 to protect the natural heritage areas and other unique ecosystems from logging, but the NHS continues to refuse to publicly support this initiative.
The NHS also refused to support the Old Growth Forest Protection Act in 2023, which would have prohibited logging in old growth forests which contain habitats for rare and endangered species. Why would the NHS not immediately support a bill to protect old growth forests?
While the NHS’s inaction to protect the state’s natural ecology is bad enough, what’s worse is that it is actively helping the timber industry to destroy the state’s native biodiversity.
In 2009, the NHS and DEM co-founded the Forest Health Works Project. While on the surface it sounds like a good program to improve forest health, it actually helps the timber industry by supporting logging efforts and job training for loggers.
To fool unwitting environmentalists into helping them, the timber industry likes to say that logging improves forest health, helps fight climate change, supports wildlife, and makes forests resistant to wildfires, even though the opposite is true in each of these claims. You would think the NHS would be opposed to the logging of natural forests. Sadly, you would be wrong.
In 2013, the Rhode Island Woodland Partnership was founded. Despite claiming to be pro- environment, the main purpose of the partnership has been to expand the timber industry in Rhode Island and destroy Rhode Island’s remaining natural forests.
Like most environmental groups in the state, the NHS became a member of the woodland partnership. Today, the NHS does nothing to protect native, biodiversity including rare and endangered species.
Why doesn’t the NHS, who works with DEM on projects, speak up about DEM’s clear-cutting of our natural native forests on public land?
Perhaps the answer is that the NHS is worried that by opposing DEM, it will lose its funding, since a great portion of that funding comes from DEM. In 2023, the NHS received $425,811.57 from DEM.
However, this is no excuse for them to stand by and do nothing, while DEM and other environmental groups are destroying the state’s natural native forests and the rare and endangered species who live in them.
It is long overdue for the NHS to stand up for our native forests, and if it doesn’t, the citizens of Rhode Island must.
Nathan Cornell is president of the Old Growth Tree Society.
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