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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

How far is RI willing to go to save forestland?

By JOHN PANTALONE/ecoRI News contributor

forest autumn GIFA plan to protect and enhance forested land in Rhode Island soon to be submitted to the U.S. Forest Service has stirred at least some disappointment from stakeholders and might well illustrate the lack of a comprehensive state plan to prevent forest loss.

The Forest Action Plan 2020, prepared by the Division of Forest Environment (DFE) in the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), assesses forest health, identifies the multiple environmental benefits of forestland, and outlines threats to Rhode Island forest. 

It also explains DFE programs that address forest loss and protection. The plan is required by the U.S. Forest Service to justify federal funding of DFE programs, which form the bulk of the unit’s resources.

While critics say the plan defines forest health and identifies significant threats to forestland, they say it doesn’t go far enough in recommending a clear, comprehensive state policy for conserving forestland that is under severe pressure from commercial, residential, and renewable-energy development, particularly ground-mounted solar installations.

“The Forest Action Plan clearly identifies forest fragmentation as a major concern, but there are no specific strategies in the plan for combating forest loss,” said Rupert Friday, executive director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council, a coalition of community land trusts. 

“The plan does not seem integrated with other DEM programs that address land conservation, and that seems odd and disappointing to me.”

Tee Jay Boudreau, DFE’s deputy chief, said the Forest Action Plan is meant to alert people to the dangers associated with forest loss and the need for proper stewardship, but policy regarding conservation is made at the highest levels of state government. 

DFE manages 29 areas that include forestland, including state parks such as Acadia and private land that has designated conservation easements. 

In fact, the bulk of forestland in Rhode Island is in the hands of more than 39,000 private owners, and the Forest Action Plan (FAP) acknowledges that those owners are under pressure to sell land for development.

“The plan is helpful for stakeholders and policymakers, but the state’s leaders need to step up with policy that would truly conserve and protect forest habitats,” said Meg Kerr, senior director of policy at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. 

“The plan almost seems like a summary of business as usual when it should outline what we need to do differently. The state’s leaders should seek help from the experts in that regard, and I think DEM should lead the conversation. The pressures on landowners for commercial and residential development aren’t decreasing even though the state’s population is not growing. This is a serious policy issue.”

Grow Smart Rhode Island’s Scott Millar agreed with Kerr and Friday that the plan doesn’t go far enough with a strategy for conserving forestland.

“This is a broader issue than just the FAP,” Millar said. “We have a particular problem with forest loss because of solar-energy initiatives. Even though achieving forest conservation is beyond what DEM can do by themselves, it was disappointing that the plan does not have recommendations on how DEM proposes to achieve forest conservation.”

Millar noted that the FAP could include conservation recommendations made in an earlier report, The Value of Rhode Island Forests, as a starting point to move leaders toward a conservation plan. Critics also say a comprehensive forest conservation plan would require input from municipal zoning regulators since much of the forestland is in or near residential areas. They also pointed to a June 2010 report that outlined measures to better protect Rhode Island’s forests.

As part of the process of putting the latest Forest Action Plan together, DFE circulated a survey and took input from dozens of stakeholders, including organizations such as Grow Smart and the Land Trust Council. 

Boudreau acknowledged that the FAP is primarily a document to outline his unit’s efforts at education of landowners and promotion of best practices, including fire prevention, pest control, and dealing with invasive species. Public input from the survey emphasized forest loss, especially from solar development.

The pressure regarding forest fragmentation ironically illustrates a conflict with state energy policy. As the state tries to move away from fossil fuels, it has encouraged solar installation, which has added pressure on landowners to sell forestland for ground-mounted energy development.

“Solar arrays are clearly a threat,” Boudreau said. “But our ability to deal with that is limited by policy and resources.”

That, in essence, is the problem, which was highlighted in a Land Trust Council letter recently sent to DEM. The FAP also clearly states that large contiguous blocks of forest should be protected, but solar developers have been cutting into those blocks with small projects near other small projects.

“In effect, the solar developers are building large fields out of collections of small fields,” Kerr said. “What this shows is that as a state we are too compartmentalized. We need a much more comprehensive approach driven by state leaders.”

John Pantalone is an associate professor and department chair at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media.