Opinion

Your Help is Needed to Save R.I.’s Biodiversity

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Another legislative session has passed. Like many other environmental bills, the Old Growth Forest Protection Act did not become law this year. This means Rhode Island remains the only state in New England with no state laws protecting forests or biodiversity, and no protected habitats for rare and endangered species.

Rhode Island will also continue to have no Natural Heritage Program, which we crucially need to identify, monitor, and protect biodiversity.

The bill failed this year primarily due to opposition from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, because the bill would require oversight of DEM’s logging activities on state land by a separate state entity. Without oversight or any laws protecting forests, DEM can log as many state forests as they want.

Logging is set to increase on state land as $5 million in this year’s so-called “green” bond is being allocated to logging and prescribed burning under the misleading name of “forests and habitat management.” This logging and burning will destroy many forests, which makes this bond not “green” at all.

Two additional foresters are also being added to DEM’s budget.

It didn’t help the Old Growth Forest Protection Act’s chances when the executive committee of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island (ECRI) voted against endorsing it after the policy committee voted in favor of endorsing the bill. This unprecedented incident where a policy committee-endorsed bill was overridden by the executive committee was due to the opposition of an ECRI vice president, a timber industry advocate.

It is no surprise that the ECRI vice president later testified against the Old Growth Forest Protection Act at House and Senate committee hearings in person, and testified in support of H7618, a bill to expand the timber industry in Rhode Island, which just barely missed becoming law this session with no opposition from environmental groups except the Old Growth Tree Society.

There are many people at ECRI who care deeply about forests, otherwise the policy committee wouldn’t have voted to support the Old Growth Forest Protection Act. But there are also the timber industry advocates who hold some of the top ECRI positions.

Climate Action Rhode Island became the first of the state’s major environmental groups to endorse the Old Growth Forest Protection Act and submitted testimony supporting it.

The Rhode Island Wild Plant Society did an excellent job spreading awareness about the Old Growth Forest Protection Act in numerous newsletters despite being a non-advocacy group.

The Rhode Island Tree Council included the bill in its spring newsletter.

Unfortunately, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey continues to ignore the Old Growth Forest Protection Act and is reluctant to inform its membership about it despite it being a bill to protect the state’s biodiversity, including rare and endangered species.

Instead, the Natural History Survey continues to host the timber industry advocacy group, the Rhode Island Woodland Partnership, on their YouTube page.

Perhaps next year, the Natural History Survey will reverse course and finally inform their membership about the Old Growth Forest Protection Act.

Without the Old Growth Forest Protection Act as law, there is little stopping DEM from going ahead with their plan this year to clear-cut one of the last remaining upland forests in the Great Swamp Management Area, which is completely in a Natural Heritage Area. Natural Heritage Areas are habitats containing rare and endangered species as identified by the original Natural Heritage Program, which existed until 2007.

Next year, our state needs to pass into law the Old Growth Forest Protection Act, which will create the first state laws to protect forests and biodiversity in the state’s history, prohibit logging in public old-growth forests, protect habitats where rare and endangered species live, and bring back the Natural Heritage Program.

If anyone in Rhode Island is interested in protecting Old Growth Forests, biodiversity, rare or endangered species, or bringing back the Natural Heritage Program, and want to be part of the effort to pass the Old Growth Forest Protection Act when it is introduced next year, please send us an email at [email protected]

2025 must be the year of protecting Rhode Island’s native biodiversity.

Nathan Cornell is president of the Old Growth Tree Society.

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  1. The Old Growth and Forest Protection Bill was well intentioned but among the worst written bills I have ever seen. Many activists and experts offered to help craft a bill that was more focused, practical, and liable to pass. Almost all of that help was refused until much too late in the session to get anything done on the topic. I am hoping this year for a much better bill (collaboratively developed ) and one recommendation is to separate the Old Growth Protection from the other parts of the bill and come up with a natural reserve system that does not require the creation of a whole new bureaucracy as it would fit nicely within th3e work of DEM if th3\e legislature is willing to fund it.

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