June 4, 2019
The Fight to Protect Our Forests
Audubon Supports the Rhode Island Woodland Preservation and Stewardship Act of 2019
By Todd McLeish
In mid-April, pine warblers had taken over the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge in Exeter. Their high-pitched, insect-like buzzy songs could be heard everywhere one turned, from the parking lot to the pond to the densest woodland.
But they weren’t the only birds making themselves heard and seen during the early days of spring migration. A pair of red-shouldered hawks called out to each other as they soared overhead and performed their mating ritual in anticipation of nesting in the refuge in the ensuing weeks. A pair of eastern phoebes had nearly completed construction of their nest on a support beam of the informational kiosk. And red-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins, black-capped chickadees and several other forest-nesting species appeared to be making plans for the future.
Eastern Phoebes build a nest at the Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge kiosk.
Fisherville, a mosaic of five properties acquired since 1988 that now totals 1,010-acres, is an ideal place to observe the important role that forests play in providing habitat for a diversity of wildlife. It’s also representative of the abundance of ecosystem services that forests contribute to the region’s human population, from protecting the water quality in local aquifers and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere to cooling the environment, reducing soil erosion and providing a stress-free place for rest, recreation and rejuvenation.
“Fisherville protects the headwaters of the Queen River, one of the most biodiverse rivers in the state,” said Scott Ruhren, Audubon’s senior director of conservation. “And the reason it’s one of the most biodiverse rivers in the state is because it runs through protected forests almost all the way to the Pawcatuck River, including through our Eppley Wildlife Refuge.”
Large undisturbed tracts of forest are especially valuable in supporting wildlife and the services that people require.
“Humans have a history of fragmenting forests into smaller patches, but small woodlots lose diversity, they get warmer more quickly, they tend to get invaded by pests, and they’re less able to store and filter water,” Ruhren said. “We take them for granted, but it’s vitally important that we protect large, intact forest ecosystems.”
While size is indeed important when it comes to forest conservation, what is equally important today in Rhode Island is that the state acknowledge the vital role forests play in the region and establish a process to protect essential forest habitats. That’s why Audubon worked with partners to develop the Rhode Island Woodland Preservation and Stewardship Act of 2019, a bill that was introduced to the General Assembly in April by Rep. Arthur Handy and Sen. Bridget Valverde. When passed, the legislation will give the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management the authority to promote the stewardship of forests and woodlands in partnership with cities, towns and private landowners.
"Wetlands, farmlands, coastal lands and soils all receive some form of protection under State law, but no such protections apply to out upland woodlands." - Lawrence Taft, Audubon Executive Director (pictured with Scott Ruhren, Audubon Senior Director of Conservation).
"Wetlands, farmland, coastal lands and soils are all protected in the state, but not upland woods,” said Audubon Executive Director Lawrence Taft as he walked through Fisherville. “Forests like this have no standing under the law in Rhode Island. There is no grand plan or incentive for people to use or protect or appreciate the environmental services they provide.”
Forested lands have been under increasing threat in recent years. Over the past century, the primary threat to Rhode Island’s wildlife and their habitats came from the conversion of land for housing and urban growth and for commercial, industrial and transportation uses. But the past two years have seen accelerated destruction of forests as rural lands are developed to support renewable energy infrastructure.
"Residents in my district are concerned about deforestation, especially by solar developments,” said Sen. Valverde. “It has become clear that cities and towns are struggling to balance the value of woodlands with these development pressures. This bill will require the Department of Environmental Management to quickly complete a planning process to assess woodlands throughout the state and develop state guidance for woodland stewardship.”
“Renewable energy development is critical for Rhode Island’s future,” added Rep. Handy. “But we must ensure that we maintain as much of our woodlands as possible. This bill will give Rhode Island the tools to quickly plan for woodland protection for all the services they provide.”
To make room for Gold Meadow Farms solar array in Cranston, some 60 acres were clear-cut to accommodate the project's 60,000 solar panels.
The bill directs the RI Department of Environmental Management (RI DEM) to develop a program of actions, including guidance for property owners, for maintaining woodland health and diversity and to provide for woodland stewardship and urban forestry. Recognizing that some woodlands have special ecological significance, RI DEM will also be required to provide guidance for cities and towns to designate specific areas as having significant natural woodland features. The agency will be guided by a community advisory council with diverse membership and expertise.
“Audubon is leading the charge on this bill because we’ve spent a lot of time in the solar siting conversation, and it became clear to us that there is an urgency around the issue,” said Meg Kerr, Audubon’s senior director of policy. “But we need more conversation around why these upland areas are important and should be protected. It’s not just a solar issue. We need to get our leaders focused on the issue of forest conservation.
“About one third of Rhode Island’s land has been identified in the state’s Wildlife Action Plan as critically important. That’s a lot of land,” she added. “We think more analysis needs to be done and priorities set, and we need to put our collective resources together about how to work with the owners of the priority lands to conserve those areas.”
Nearly 70 percent of wooded areas in the state are privately owned. And products that are produced from wood grown in these private forests contribute $700 million to the state’s economy – and 3,000 jobs.
Another reason to support the legislation’s call for forest conservation is to ensure that protected habitats are connected so wildlife can move about safely. This is especially important as the changing climate is forcing wildlife to adapt to changing environmental conditions, which will require many species to travel widely along migration corridors to find acceptable habitat in new locations.
In addition to concerns over the clearing of forests for solar facilities, the proposed site for Invenergy’s massive gas-fired power plant in Burrillville is a critical link connecting protected forest habitat, further illustrating the need for coordinated planning for woodland and forest protection in Rhode Island.
Audubon Senior Director of Policy Meg Kerr with
Senator Bridget Valverde, sponsor of the Woodland
Preservation and Stewardship Act of 2019. Kerr
attended the Arbor day event at the RI Statehouse
(May 9, 2019) to encourage support of the bill.
The Rhode Island House and Senate held hearings on the proposed legislation in April, and many individuals and organizations registered their support, including The Nature Conservancy, Save the Bay, and the Environmental Council of Rhode Island. Other allies, like the Rhode Island Farm Bureau and the League of Cities and Towns, indicated they do not oppose the bill.
Some expressed reservations, however. The Rhode Island Forest Conservation Organization noted that the Rhode Island Woodland Partnership has been preparing a plan of forest conservation strategies for some time, and they suggested that the bill is putting the cart before the horse and should wait until their plan is finalized. “We don’t disagree,” Kerr said. “But our intent is to start the conversation now so we’ll be open and ready for their recommendations when we pursue the legislation again next year.”
Other opponents fear the slippery slope of government over-reach and the potential that DEM or the state may eventually be able to tell property owners what they can and cannot do with their land. But nothing in the language of the legislation suggests that would occur. The bill will not take any land or affect the rights of private property owners. In fact, as the largest private landowner in Rhode Island, Audubon supports the bill in part because it recognizes landowner rights and helps to create state-wide strategies for effective land use and conservation.
After the two hearings, the legislation was held in committee for further study. In the meantime, Audubon and its allies are continuing to meet with supporters and those who have concerns about the legislation to discuss recommendations for amendments and to continue the conversation about the need for forest conservation legislation in anticipation of reintroducing the bill next year.
“We really need to address this issue,” Kerr said. “We’re completely open and interested in policy solutions that would address the concerns we’re raising.”
Back at Fisherville Brook, Taft and Ruhren strolled through towering pines and pointed out yet another singing pine warbler.
“We’re looking at the role that forests play and trying to ensure they will continue in that role going forward,” Taft concluded. “We want to get forests in the language of the law, because when natural resources are referenced in our laws, forests are absent, as if they don’t even exist. We’re trying to change that.”
Todd McLeish is a life-long birder, freelance science writer and author of several books about wildlife, including Return of the Sea Otter.
Learning about forests is important for all ages, so the key role that forests play in a healthy environment is a frequent talking point in many of Audubon’s educational programs.
An editorial by Meg Kerr, Senior Director of Policy | Our forests provide innumerable services to humans and wildlife. Maintaining woodlands in rural areas of the state and promoting tree planting in suburban and urban neighborhoods is part of the climate change solution.