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Tuesday, March 19, 2024

A Fight is Brewing Over Rhode Island’s Forests

Prevent fires through more logging?

By Uprise RI Staff

Deep within the corridors of power at the Rhode Island State House, an intense battle is taking shape over the future of the Ocean State’s forests. A series of bills have been introduced that proponents say will help prevent devastating wildfires and promote sustainable forest management.

But critics argue the measures are a thinly-veiled attempt by the timber industry to increase logging on public lands for private profit.

At the center of the controversy is the “Forestry and Forest Parity Act” (2024 H 7618), sponsored by Representative Megan Cotter. The bill would provide significant tax breaks for commercial logging operations, remove zoning restrictions on where they can take place, and formally declare timber harvesting a “permitted use” in essentially all areas of the state.

“We need to adapt to our changing climate with a new and more vigorous approach to forest management,” Cotter wrote in a recent op-ed for RI News Today. “That means we must work as partners with landowners, helping them safely manage the risks of fires, for their benefit and the safety of the public.”

But Nathan Cornell, President of the Old Growth Tree Society, sees the legislation very differently. In a letter sent to media outlets, he alleges H 7618 is designed to “make it more profitable to the timber industry to clearcut log forests on state land as well as clearcut forests for solar and residential developments.”

The dispute highlights the difficult tradeoffs between environmental conservation and economic activity. Forests play a vital role removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, filtering groundwater, and mitigating urban heat islands. But they also represent a valuable commercial resource if harvested judiciously.

According to Cotter’s op-ed, “Fifty-four percent of Rhode Island is forested, which is impressive considering it’s the second-most densely populated state in the nation.” She argues more active management is needed as climate change brings hotter, drier conditions that increase wildfire risk.

Cornell, however, claims reports from the U.S. Forest Service show that logging operations can exacerbate fire hazards by leaving behind flammable debris known as “slash.” He cites a project underway by the state’s Department of Environmental Management to thin forests in the Arcadia Management Area, arguing it is being “disguised” as fire mitigation.

The debate extends beyond H 7618 to several related pieces of legislation making their way through the General Assembly. Cotter is also sponsoring a bill (H 7550) to allocate $3 million from the state’s Green Bond fund for “forest and habitat management” – which critics say is code for logging.

Another Cotter-sponsored measure (H 7258) would add 10 new staff positions to DEM’s Division of Forestry. Cornell alleges the real purpose is to ramp up timber harvesting in state forests and other public woodlands.

Cotter portrayed the forestry bills as being about responsible environmental stewardship in her op-ed. She touted the creation of a new House commission she chairs “to determine the best action for improving forest management” by bringing together “experts and stakeholders.”

But Cornell questions the commission’s objectivity, noting that Cotter and the Republican House Minority Leader Michael Chippendale – who co-sponsored H 7618 – are the only two legislators appointed to it. He suggests they have a vested interest in promoting policies that boost Rhode Island’s logging industry.

The heated rhetoric from both sides underscores the complexity of the issue. Prolonged drought, rising temperatures, and an increased frequency of extreme weather have turned Rhode Island’s forests into a tinderbox during summer months. The state has already experienced several major wildfires in the past year, including one that scorched 350 acres in Exeter.

In that context, calls for better forest management carry significant weight. But what, precisely, that should entail is where the battle lines have been drawn between environmental advocates and commercial interests. The forestry debate seems likely to intensify as the legislation works its way through the State House in the months ahead.