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Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Two initiatives from Rep. Megan Cotter advance important issues

Two articles from ecoRI show how different she is from her MAGA predecessor Justin Price

Here are two pieces from ecoRI on efforts by Rep. Megan Cotter (D) to fund land conservation and to prevent wildfires. Cotter beat right-wing MAGAnut Justin Price in a re-match in 2022. 

Since taking office, she has been one of the most prolific legislators in fighting for issues of vital importance not just to her district but to all of rural Rhode Island.

These articles appear in succession below.

Bill Would Add $16M to Green Economy Bond for Land Preservation

By Rob Smith / ecoRI News staff

State lawmakers and environmental groups are teaming up to plug a funding gap and save Rhode Island’s land conservation programs.

A bill introduced by Rep. Megan Cotter, D-Exeter, would inject $16 million into this year’s Green Economy Bond to fund four separate programs to protect land from development and provide a healthy boost for the state’s environment.

The programs — which include money for state and local open space acquisition, farmland preservation, forest management, and habitat restoration — are usually included in a single bond question to be approved by voters every two years.

But the state budget proposal announced last month by Gov. Dan McKee included no money for these programs in this year’s $50 million environmental bond question and, if passed, it would be the first time in nearly 40 years funding for the state’s conservation programs did not appear on the ballot.

The governor’s office did not respond to multiple inquiries from ecoRI News on why land conservation was left off the bond question.

Cotter’s bill would set aside $5 million for farmland preservation, $5 million for state open space acquisition, $3 million for local open space acquisition, and $3 million for forest management within the state Department of Environmental Management. 

The bill garnered more than 30 co-sponsors by Tuesday afternoon from representatives across Rhode Island and the aisle — two Republicans signed their name to co-sponsor, including Minority Leader Michael Chippendale, R-Foster.

Meanwhile, the state’s conservation organizations said they were caught off guard over the lack of money for state land protection programs in the governor’s budget. Kate Sayles, director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council, told ecoRI News she was “surprised” by the lack of funds.

“We traditionally rely on the green bonds for all of the programs we use for land conservation and farmland conservation,” Sayles said. “We know through years and years of data from The Nature Conservancy that clean water and land are what sells the green bond.”

Land conservation has big benefits to the local economy. According to Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands & Communities, a New England conservation advocacy group, states in the region see an economic return of between $4 and $11 for every $1 of state funding spent on land conservation. 

How that wealth is spread around may not be equitable, however; a study by the University of Rhode Island published last year suggested wealthy and white homeowners may be reaping the benefits of land conservation.

Diane Lynch, president of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, and a longtime member of the Agricultural Lands Preservation Commission (ALPC), the state’s chief driver of farmland preservation, said she was “very disappointed” the governor proposed no money for farmland preservation for the second bond question in a row. Without a fresh infusion of cash from the green bond, the program was unlikely to have enough cash to function, according to Lynch.

“We’ll be down to where we were with less than $500,000,” she said. “Then we’re scratching our heads, can we even do any deals? It’s like running your car down to empty every time you’re out on the road.”

It’s not the first time farmland preservation has been left off the ballot. The 2022 green bond contained money for open space acquisition, forest management, and habitat restoration, but no money for the ALPC’s farmland preservation activities. Lawmakers had to swoop in and grant the ALPC a $2.5 million allocation to keep the program running.

But despite the allocation last year, the ALPC’s entire working budget is essentially spoken for; the program has a massive backlog of farms and other unfunded projects remaining in its queue. Lynch said there were 16 high-priority farms the ALPC wanted to work with, totaling about 1,500 acres of farmland at a cost of around $25 million.

And that’s just the highest priority farms identified by the program. Lynch said there were another 2,500 acres of farmland not included in the list for various reasons.

Meanwhile, other environmental programs funded by bond money have spent their funds or are about to. According to DEM, the State Land Conservation program has less than $1 million unobligated funds leftover from the 2022 green bond and the department is currently in the process of awarding $2 million in grants to groups and communities to protect open space at the local level.

DEM has said it has fully allocated (but not completely spent) the $3 million for forest and habitat restoration it was awarded in 2022 bond funds. Half the money has been used to remove hazardous dead standing trees in state management areas, including those areas previously impacted by spongy moth infestations, and $360,000 for an ongoing shaded fuel break project in Arcadia.

DEM said $700,000 will be used to develop a management plan for each of the agency’s management areas; $500,000 will go toward invasive pest control; and $300,000 will be spent on targeted prescribed burns on state-owned lands.

In December, DEM opened the RFP process for the $3 million in watershed protection bond money. Eligible projects have until Feb. 28 to submit applications.

Land conservation in Rhode Island, both for farmland and forestland, is headed toward a tipping point. Large landowners and farmers, many of whom are reaching retirement age, are facing pressure from development like never before, whether from developers interested in subdivisions or solar companies looking for the next best site for ground-mounted arrays.

While Sayles is advocating for the state to do more for land conservation, she doesn’t see it as directly competing with affordable housing or solar projects, but more as vital parts of a whole.

“Rhode Islanders deserve a safe and healthy place to live with access to green space, cleaner air, clean water and food, that’s it,” she said. “We can all agree there’s an affordable housing crisis, that’s not something that should be seen as external from land conservation, or renewable energy, or transportation or human health.

“If we start at a baseline and recognize we all need a safe place to live with those things, then discussing it as a local land use issue where we’re all working together to ensure we are getting those things puts us all in a better position.”

Wildfire Study Commission Proposes Fire Road Mapping, Mitigation Plans

By Rob Smith / ecoRI News staff

Nine months after wildfires in Exeter and West Greenwich burned hundreds of acres of woodland, those same fires could now spark something else: change.

After last year’s fires, lawmakers, led by Rep. Megan Cotter, D-Exeter, empaneled a study commission to analyze the state’s response and existing policies regarding wildfires with an eye on preventing the next one. With Rhode Island getting hotter and drier during the spring and summer, it’s only a matter of time before another forest goes up in smoke.

Despite the prevalence of forestland in Rhode Island — 3 out of every 5 acres in the state is forestland — state and local officials, as well as private property owners, often lack a comprehensive plan to manage wildfires.

“I think it’s been eye-opening,” Cotter, who chairs the study commission, told ecoRI News. “I think a lot has come to light, and we’re going to have some great recommendations for the General Assembly.”

The study commission, which has been meeting monthly since September, is gearing up to write its final report with key policy recommendations for forest management and wildfire prevention. Commissioners met Feb. 2 to discuss potential findings.

Among their recommendations? A proposal to use a geographic Information system (GIS) to map all fire roads on all forestland around the state, beginning with areas owned and managed by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Commissioners are also keen to improve outreach to private landowners of forested properties and help them craft fire mitigation plans.

Commissioners also discussed recommending adding wildfire mitigation to municipalities’ hazard mitigation plans, and developing a statewide wildfire contingency plan with available resources and appropriate contacts.

The rub? Similar plans don’t already exist because many rural towns in Rhode Island, where the bulk of the forestland is, don’t have extra money or staffing power for wildfire mitigation plans. 

Putting out last year’s wildfires took a combined effort from local firefighters, departments in other towns, fire departments in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and the Rhode Island National Guard. Any local fire mitigation plans would require approval by the local municipal fire department.

“A lot of rural towns in particular don’t have a deep bench, meaning there’s just not a lot of people to do it,” commission member Scott Millar said at the recent meeting. “Local fire companies are volunteers; they’re already stretched pretty thin. Town planners in rural towns are part-time and some of them don’t have a planner at all.”

Commissioners indicated sources for funding were available. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) told the study commission at a meeting last year that, thanks to federal laws like the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the program had more money than projects it could spend it on.

The study commission’s work is likely to become ongoing on a rolling basis. Among DEM’s stated recommendations last week was an annual meeting between rural fire departments, Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, and the department to strengthen coordination before wildfire season.

Meanwhile, Cotter has introduced two bills to boost forestry management in the state. The first, H7258, would allocate 10 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions within DEM’s forestry division. Cotter said she would like to see more people in the department performing outreach to large, forested landowners, but also more rangers to enable DEM to have a greater presence on state property and prevent illegal dumping in management areas like Arcadia.

“There’s so many roles to fill, 10 FTEs is barely scratching the surface,” Cotter said.

In 1990, DEM’s forestry division employed 18 laborers, 16 rangers, seven foresters, and two equipment operators. There are now three laborers, four rangers, six foresters, and no equipment operators.

Cotter’s other bill (H7550), introduced Feb. 6, would add $16 million to the proposed green economy bond, including $3 million set aside for forestry management purposes.

The study commission is expected to meet and vote on its recommendations in a meeting later this month.