Metro, News

Report finds RI forests need more protection

New study highlights benefits of forests, threats they face

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2020

A report titled “The Value of Rhode Island Forests” found that Rhode Island’s forests provide many public health, economic, social and environmental benefits, but they need more protection from a myriad of threats, according to Tee Jay Boudreau, deputy chief of the Division of Forest Environment at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The report also outlined strategies for promoting forest conservation. 

Funded through the DEM with a grant from the U.S. Forest Service, the Rhode Island Tree Council and the Rhode Island Forest Conservation Advisory Committee began the study in August 2018. “With developmental pressures being put on forest land, and with the public being more interested in forests, as well as requirements from the U.S. Forest Service, it was a good idea to come up with a report that compiled all that information in one place,” Boudreau said. “It’s the first study that talks about not only looking at forest conservation benefits, but also … policy recommendations and actions that can be taken at the state and municipal level.”

According to the 132-page study, the greatest threats to Rhode Island’s forests are invasive species, climate change and “fragmentation and conversion to other land uses.” Rhode Island has lost nearly 2,000 acres of core forest between 2011 and 2018 mainly due to building, construction and ground-mounted solar installations, said John T. Campanini Jr., technical advisor for the Rhode Island Tree Council. According to Campanini, ground-mounted solar installations are “eroding” Rhode Island’s forest system as more forestland is cleared to create space for them.

The Rhode Island Tree Council is “not opposed to … use of solar (power) nor are we opposed to the building trades,” Campanini said. But he said that core forests “should be off limits to any of these actions that could actually erode our forest acreage or our forest lands.” Campanini suggested using other sites, such as parking lots and rooftops, for placing solar installations.

But Stephen Porder, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and environment and society and assistant provost for sustainability at the University, does not think that the issue of forests versus solar panels is “as one-sided … as I felt like that report tried to make it sound.”

“It’s a common trope that (solar panels) should go over parking lots or they should go in ‘blighted urban areas,’” Porder said. But “it’s much more expensive to put them in parking lots. … It’s important to acknowledge the tradeoffs.”

Porder stated that “there’s this false choice between keeping the forests as they are versus cutting down trees for solar panels when in truth, the forests are not going to stay as they are if we just continue with business as usual.” He added that although solar panels reduce more carbon dioxide emissions than their installation generates, he does not advocate for cutting down all of Rhode Island’s forests for the purpose of installing solar panels. Instead, Porder said that he “would really like a detailed assessment of the entire Rhode Island landscape,” including information about other available places for solar panels and about how much electricity they would provide.”

In addition to analyzing the threats to forests, the report also described the numerous benefits that Rhode Island’s forests provide. “Forest lands protect or buffer 80 percent of our water system … they play a huge role in keeping the water clean from pollutants,” Campanini said. He added that forests lead to better health by improving the air quality and offer social benefits by providing a space for outdoor recreational activities.

Additionally, Rhode Island forests “sequester 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, offsetting the annual emissions of more than 100,000 passenger vehicles each year,” the report states. They also provide essential habitats for thousands of wildlife species and plants.

The report also found that forests provide economic benefits. Campanini highlighted the number of people employed in forest-related occupations and the amount of revenue that forest-based recreational activities generate.

The DEM hopes to utilize the information in this study to develop new strategies for forest conservation and to educate the public on the benefits of Rhode Island’s forests. The Rhode Island Woodland Partnership has “a number of activities within (their) strategic plan” that the Division of Forest Environment is looking to adhere to, including education, outreach and long-term conservation programs, according to Boudreau.

Boudreau stated that with this report, the DEM “is reaching out to our partners in the nonprofit world … that we normally work with to try to align strategies.” Additionally, the DEM seeks to improve landowner education and outreach, as well as aid policymakers by providing them with the necessary technical expertise and educational background, Boudreau said.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rhode Island Tree Council has not yet had a meeting with members of the state legislature about the report’s findings. But “we still hope to have that meeting so that we can apprise them of how this report can be used by local officials, state officials and even the average homeowner to work to protect our forest lands,” Campanini said. “We’ve got something here, natural resources that are really worth protecting.”

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