Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), keynoted the 2015 Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI) annual meeting, held recently at Slater Mill in Pawtucket. The event celebrated the creation of the Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park and progress made toward other ECRI priorities such as cesspool phase-out legislation.
O’Mara, who has served as NWF president since July 2014, is the former head of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. He oversaw efforts to enhance Delaware’s resilience to the impacts of climate change through improved stormwater management, beach restoration, and dam and dike repair.
In 2013, as board chair for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, O’Mara oversaw a 45 percent reduction in the Northeast’s cap-and-trade program’s carbon dioxide emissions cap, restoring some relevance to the program after the cap had become too high because of the region’s transition toward natural gas.
O’Mara spoke with ecoRI News staffer Kevin Profit prior to his recent speech at the ECRI annual meeting. The following is an edited question-and-answer session that addressed a number of topics.
ecoRI: In December 2014, Rhode Island’s Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park and Delaware's First State National Historic Park were added to the National Parks Service. What is the importance of the National Parks Service designation and how can states best leverage these parks to maximize economic benefit and natural and historic preservation?
O’Mara: Until two years ago, Delaware was the only state in the country not to have a National Park; 400 national monument or park units were established before Delaware’s, so the first state to sign the Constitution was the last to have a national park.
A lot of the places we are talking about on the East Coast are already protected in some way — as a state-level park or by a nonprofit organization — but I think the marketing and tourism value for these protected areas, for whatever reason, goes up when you have that National Parks’ arrowhead associated with them. It legitimizes the national significance of the sites. Millions of families across this country plan their vacations based on national park designated sites.
Rhode Island and Delaware have these incredible resources — whether it’s the waterways in Rhode Island or some of the Colonial historical sites in Delaware — and now they have the federal stamp of approval that makes them attractive to a wider circle.
The average economic impact of these sites tends to be in the $5 million to $10 million range. That supports small businesses near the parks, which hopefully creates a greater appreciation for conserving these natural and historic resources as an economic driver, rather than a resources to be exploited. I think it helps reinforce the conservation economy and creates more jobs and more resources for conservation.
R.I. Department of Environmental Management
ecoRI: The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has experienced severe budget cuts during the past decade. Based on your experience as the head of Delaware’s environmental agency during lean times, what does a state risk by cutting the budget of its environmental agency?
O’Mara: The challenge for environmental agencies when they experience budget cuts is that the demands on the agency don’t decrease. Environmental agencies have a fixed number of federally delegated programs to implement, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, as well as parks systems that need to remain operational, fish and wildlife habitat that must be managed, beaches that have to remain attractive and clean. The portfolio doesn’t really change with the budget allocation.
You have two extremes. On one side, if you don’t have sufficient resources for good science, oversight and permitting, you’ll see degradation — you’ll have contaminated soils that aren’t being remediated, facilities that should have permits or more rigorous conditions experiencing reduced scrutiny. On the other side, I’ve seen states with inadequately funded environmental agencies unable to get their permits out the door, which results in a crunch on business. Either way it’s bad.
I view cuts to environmental agencies as potentially catastrophic. If you’d never cut an economic development agency during a recession, why would you cut an environmental agency that’s helping underpin the economy in so many ways?
Environment vs. Economy
ecoRI: How do you respond to people or groups that argue that society has to choose between the environment and the economy?
O’Mara: The rhetoric from the 1970s about this kind of tradeoff has been disproven many times, but the environmental community continues to face it. Often, the best investments that Rhode Island and other East Coast states can make in terms of long-term economic viability are investments in their natural resources.
People come to Rhode Island because it is gorgeous. They come for clean water, a great beach experience, boating activities, fishing or the great state parks. Rhode Island has amazing inland, ocean and water experiences; to not view that as significant as any other industry sector and invest in it accordingly is penny-wise and pound-foolish.
I often say that if a major employer was threatening to pack up and move to another of state, every politician would come out of the woodwork to propose tax incentives or grants to keep the business in the state. At the same time, they allow our natural resource to be degraded to the point where they are not as attractive to people.
On top of that, because we are dealing with issues around resilience, sea-level rise and climate change, we actually need to be over investing in natural resources just to maintain their prominence.
ecoRI: Rhode Island experiences severe coastal erosion. Many of our properties are at risk from sea-level rise and storm surge. New flood maps show low-lying, historic villages that are threatened. In states that depend heavily on the coast for tourism and tax dollars, what are the best ways to adapt to the impacts of climate change?
O’Mara: First and foremost, accepting the science of climate change and not having a debate over it is paramount. Rhode Island, thanks especially to the Coastal Resources Management Council, is as far along in that conversation as any part of the country. How that translates to the legislature is different question.
In terms of adaptation strategies, it’s really about having tough conversation about where it makes sense to bolster natural defenses and where it makes sense to start retreating. I was just shown maps of sea-level projections for Rhode Island that show parts of Warwick becoming an island and other low-lying areas becoming inundated. These are terrifying things, but having the courage to have honest conversations is important. We’re not talking about 2100 in many of these cases, were talking about seeing more extreme storms and some additional rates of sea-level rise during the next 10 or 20 years.
Study after study, and project after project, is showing that natural infrastructure solutions are the most effective and resilient barriers against severe storms. If you look at places that have healthy wetlands and dunes, living shorelines or oyster reefs are the places that survive storms best. Natural infrastructure solutions need to become the preferred option instead of sporadic pilot projects.
ecoRI: In a state like Rhode Island where there are no moose, bison or wolves, how do you get people excited about wildlife and habitat conservation?
O’Mara: It’s really about focusing on the species that matter at home. In Rhode Island that may be bird populations. You’ve got shorebirds, migratory waterfowl and all kinds of songbirds. You have incredible aquatic life, including the right whale, lobsters and diverse fish populations. Rhode Island also has a massive pollinator population, which is significant for a variety of reasons.
While it’s always great to have the charismatic megafauna, like bison, bighorn sheep, manatees or moose, folks love the wildlife in their backyard. If we can figure out a way to connect people to what they care about at home, it becomes much easier to extrapolate that connection to the bigger national and international challenges.
When people start talking about the polar bears or puffins — animals that the average person will maybe see in a zoo, but never see in the wild — I think it’s less powerful than when you talk about the right whale in Rhode Island or moose in New Hampshire. Those are more interesting conversations because they are relevant to the people having them.
ecoRI: Stormwater runoff closes shellfishing grounds and beaches, causes health concerns and hurts the tourism industry. How do you engage the public on this issue and thereby generate enthusiasm for investing in strategies to address the problem?
O’Mara: Natural infrastructure solutions are now being implemented as alternatives to the combined sewer-overflow solution. You see great examples in Onondaga County in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Wilmington in Delaware.
Natural infrastructure solutions tend to be a fraction of the cost, while also solving many other problems. You can improve community resilience by having rain gardens and vegetated buffers, you can create wildlife habitat that beautifies communities, you can actually clean water as it filters through the ground.
If you pitch stormwater management as a way to strengthen communities, so we have healthier water, more wildlife, more recreation and more resilience, it’s a much different value proposition than saying, “We need some more sewers” or “We need more catch basins.”
ecoRI: There are a number of fossil-fuel divestment campaigns in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island School of Design and the city of Providence have each agreed to divest or partially divest their investments from the fossil-fuel industry, while Brown and URI have rejected the same proposition. What is your opinion of the impact that the divestment movement can have on climate change?
O’Mara: I don’t think divestment is going to be the silver bullet to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but I think it does raise the collective consciousness. People begin connecting the dots between their beliefs or policy priorities and their financial priorities. Watching that battle play out on so many campuses, and seeing divestment win out over and over again, I think it’s just another sign that the conversation is reaching a tipping point very quickly. It’s another signal that the overwhelming consensus of the country is for action and for a more sustainable way.
Editor’s note: O’Mara’s keynote speech, which touched on Rhode Island’s new national park, engaging people in wildlife and habitat preservation on a hyper-local level, advancement of the Block Island Wind Farm and the benefits of natural systems as buffers against the impacts of climate change can be viewed here. O’Mara’s speech begins at about the 29-minute mark.