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Building a Buzz in Rhode Island

Audubon Advocacy Gives a Voice to Pollinators in Crisis

When Environment Council of Rhode Island member Dave Brunetti mentioned at a meeting that he wanted to get the state to ban a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, Audubon’s director of policy, Meg Kerr, and her predecessor Eugenia Marks expressed their support and offered to help. Concerns about the decline of bees have made news around the world, and neonicotinoids have been implicated as one probable cause. Since pollinator protection is high on Audubon’s list of priorities, Kerr and Marks joined with Brunetti in speaking to legislators and meeting with beekeepers and other interested stakeholders about the issue.

The idea of a ban on neonicotinoids met with resistance from many in the farming and landscaping industries, however, so one legislator offered to convene what Kerr called “a listening workshop” to bring together experts and interested parties to share their perspectives. It was an emotionally charged meeting, and it soon became clear that there was little support for an immediate ban on the insecticides.

Instead, a compromise was reached and legislation was passed to establish a Pollinator Working Group under the RI Department of Environmental Management to investigate the many issues surrounding pollinator health and habitat in Rhode Island. The Working Group includes scientists, farmers, landscapers, beekeepers and representatives of environmental groups, with Kerr and Shannon Brawley, executive director of the RI Nursery and Landscape Association, designated as “staff” to lead the effort.

“We all agreed that it was an opportunity to bring people together, learn about the condition of bees and other pollinators in our state, evaluate how pesticides, climate change and habitat changes are impacting pollinators. We wanted to identify strategies the state could consider to move forward in a productive way to address our concerns,” Kerr said.

Advocacy: It’s Not Always What You Think
Many people think that environmental advocacy, like Audubon’s work to protect pollinators, all takes place at the State House. They imagine Kerr and others testifying at legislative hearings, persuading legislators in one-on-one meetings, and occasionally catching the ear of the governor in a fight for strong environmental policies. But that’s only one small part of the process, as Audubon’s involvement in the Pollinator Working Group suggests.

“It’s a difficult process to pass a bill, but passage doesn’t change anything,” Kerr said. “We need to continue to advocate for full and proper implementation of the bills that we work to get passed. Almost always the bill is asking a state agency to do something, and the agencies are all short-staffed and already have full plates.”

“And just because it was our priority and we were able to convince the legislature to make it a priority,” she added, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a state agency priority or that they have the funding for what we want them to do.”

For example, Audubon fought for two years for passage of amendments to Rhode Island’s Green Buildings Act to add metrics for ensuring that the property around new state buildings is as sustainably designed as the buildings themselves. The bill that passed gives the state an opportunity to pilot test the new metrics on four projects.

“We are now part of the implementation team, helping the state successfully select and implement the four projects” said Kerr. “Once a bill passes, advocates always think about how we can help the state be successful.”

The same was true of the Resilient Rhode Island Act, which established greenhouse gas reduction goals and programs aimed at state agency coordination. Advocates like Kerr who worked to get the bill passed continue to remain engaged to make sure that the state does what the bill directed.

“The point is, our job is not to pass bills. Our job is to make the environment better in Rhode Island,” Kerr said. “Simply passing bills doesn’t do it.”

The good news is that Audubon is highly respected at the State House, thanks to decades of advocacy by the late executive director Al Hawkes, Marks and others long before Kerr was hired. While Kerr has been an environmental advocate for more than 25 years, she was pleased to see the immediate respect she was given as a representative of Audubon.

“The members of the General Assembly care about what we have to say because our large membership gives us clout,” she said. “Many legislators also have fond memories of hiking trails at Audubon refuges and have attended Audubon events. And they worked for years with Eugenia, who was always on top of the issues. That’s the expectation they have of us.”

We are a Forest, Not a Tree.
But Audubon doesn’t work alone on behalf of the Rhode Island environment. There are numerous other groups that collaborate, though the Environment Council of Rhode Island deserves special acknowledgement. A coalition of more than 60 organizations, it serves as a collective voice for advocating for effective policies and laws to protect and enhance the local environment.

“We’re not all in lock step on what we care most about, but each organization has its area of expertise and area of advocacy, and we share what we’re doing with each other,” explained Kerr. “We create a priority agenda of bills to work together on.”

Kerr is co-chair of the Environment Council’s policy committee, which hosts an Earth Day event at the State House to encourage Rhode Islanders to meet their legislators and discuss environmental concerns. The Council also issues a Green Report Card every other year that grades individual legislators on their voting record on key environmental bills.

The proposed neonicotinoid ban that led to the creation of the Pollinator Working Group was Environment Council board member Dave Brunetti’s first foray into lobbying the General Assembly, and he was pleased to have the support of Audubon’s experienced advocates.

“Their skills at grassroots organizing were a huge help,” he said. “A lot of people on the Pollinator Working Group put in a lot of effort, but it wouldn’t have gone anywhere without Meg Kerr. She was hugely instrumental through her organizational skills to keep the group moving and drafting proposals. Without Meg’s involvement, we wouldn’t be nearly as far along as we are.”

David Gregg, executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, was worried that the establishment of the Working Group was a way for the legislature to avoid a complex and controversial issue. “But I was surprised how little we really know about the issue, surprised how complex the questions were we were messing about in, and I came to support the idea that we needed it,” he said.

Kerr recruited him to the group to represent those interested in natural history, wild bees and healthy habitat.

“After several meetings, we quickly learned that the pesticide situation was much more complicated than we thought,” Gregg said. “There’s no doubt that neonicotinoids are very powerful. It’s likely that they are harming some bees, but much of the harm comes from the misapplication of the pesticides. There would be serious costs to eliminating neonicotinoids, so why pay those costs if half the fault comes from misapplication. Maybe it would be more advantageous to tackle the misapplication issue first.”

The Pollinator Working Group’s first report, issued in February 2017, recommended the establishment of a Pesticide Study Commission to investigate the misapplication of pesticides, the inadequate funding of the state’s pesticide management and licensing programs, and related issues.

“We need to get our arms around all facets of pesticide management and not lose ourselves on any one pesticide,” Kerr said. “We’re concerned about outdated laws and regulations, we’re concerned about ensuring that training includes information about pollinators, and we are concerned about the unknown combined effects of pesticides applied on the same property to address different problems like mosquito control and garden pests.”

The report also noted opportunities to enhance pollinator habitat around the state. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management is already proactive in pollinator enhancement projects on many of its properties, but additional openings exist along roadsides and elsewhere.

Kerr and the Working Group also met with Governor Gina Raimondo’s staff in December to emphasize that pollinator protection was a priority, which led to plans for a National Pollinator Week program at the State House in June that will feature a “Bee Rally” at which Raimondo has been invited to speak. The State House will also be illuminated with black and yellow lights that move around the building’s exterior like a giant bee.
“The intent is to raise awareness of the importance of pollinators and to give the governor an opportunity to take credit for what the state is already doing to protect pollinators and to acknowledge that we’re asking it to do more,” Kerr said.

“In all the work we do, there are carrots and sticks, and we need to remember to recognize and thank those we are trying to nudge in certain directions,” she added. “That’s as important as calling them out for not taking action – which is part of the reason for the Bee Rally.

I hope the governor and her agency heads can get up there and get some praise. They’ve got hard jobs and have to balance many voices, and not all of them are pointing in the same direction.”

After the success of the first year of the Pollinator Working Group, the initiative was extended through the 2018 legislative session, and the Pesticide Study Commission, of which Kerr is also a member, began meeting this winter. Audubon’s advocacy efforts in support of pollinators will likely continue for many years to come.
“Meg convened a diverse group of stakeholders around an important issue, which then researched it and made substantive recommendations on time,” said Gregg. “She created the groundwork for additional advocacy that will actually drive home changes that will improve our environment. It isn’t tilting at windmills – it’s systematic and grassroots from the ground up.”

The establishment and activity of the Pollinator Working Group exemplifies the diverse and time-consuming work involved in environmental advocacy. And many other issues are addressed in a similar way – meetings with legislators, building support in the community, listening to scientists and other experts, negotiating with opponents, and using traditional and social media to raise awareness of the issues.

“Nothing happens overnight,” Kerr said. “There is always more advocacy to be done at the State House and with state and local agencies, more op-eds and letters to the editor to write to shine a light on our issues. There is a whole toolbox of things that we utilize to move an issue forward.”

In addition to pollinator health and habitat, Audubon’s other legislative priorities focus on the siting of renewable energy facilities and the management of storm water. Bills on other topics are also followed, including proposals for the banning of single-use plastic bags and a carbon pricing initiative. And this year, a green economy bond seeking $48.5 million for open space protection and clean water programs will go before the voters in November.

Audubon members are encouraged to play a role in advocating for these issues as well. Interested members – and non-members – are invited to sign up for a monthly email update listing actions they can take to advocate for particular issues of importance. And when it is especially crucial that legislators hear from their constituents prior to a vote, an action alert is sent asking that calls be made, emails be sent, or attendance at hearings or other events is encouraged.

“We’ve activated our members to add their voices on state issues and federal issues, the designation of the marine monument, the recent menhaden issue, and many others,” Kerr said. “We help them draft letters or testimony, we educate them about the issues, we ask them to fill in post cards. They are an important part of our toolbox.”

In addition, most issues of Audubon Report include an editorial about timely issues that deserve member attention. It isn’t necessary to be an expert to lend your voice. Anyone and everyone can speak as a citizen about issues of importance to them.

“It’s hard to keep track of all of the issues, and it’s hard to get up to speed and feel confident to advocate on every topic,” said Kerr. “But what’s most important is that advocacy is all about relationships and understanding what each player needs and what will motivate them.”

• • •
Todd McLeish is a life-long birder, freelance science writer and author of several books about wildlife, including “Return of the Sea Otter.”

I Can Do It!

Let Your Voice Be Heard

Contact Senior Director of Policy Meg Kerr to share your perspective on the state issues we follow and to sign up for advocacy emails.
Email Meg at

Attend meetings in your community. Listen to the deliberations of your town council, planning and zoning boards. Identify active voices in your town who are working for protection of birds and other wildlife and get to know them. Explore ways to work together to have a positive impact on local decisions.

Attend meetings of the Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI). ECRI meets monthly from September through June on the first Monday of the month at 5:30 at the Department of Administration. You are welcome to attend and learn about current environmental issues.

Emails and letters are important to elected officials. You may get a form letter reply but don’t let that bother you. Elected officials pay attention to the mail they get from their constituents.

Write a letter to the editor of your local paper. Your opinion matters and people will notice what you have said. So will your elected officials.

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