Rhode Island’s environmental watchdog not all bite
By KARINA LUTZ/ecoRI News staff
Nothing happens in social change because of only one person’s action — by definition it is social. Yet, there are times when it’s clear that a change wouldn’t have happened when and how it did if a certain person hadn’t done his or her part.
In the history of Rhode Island environmental activism over the past three decades or so, it’s likely that the advocate who has most often been that person is Eugenia Marks, policy director for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
Marks dislikes talking about herself, and prefers to talk about how everything she has done as an environmentalist has been in collaboration with others. She makes sure to give credit to half a dozen people helping on her current project — interns, researchers, watershed association leaders and “so many agency people who care deeply about the environment who work on projects to help the environment outside of their jobs.”
Certainly, no one issue or person can stand alone. For example, we can’t tackle one environmental issue without seeing how it is connected to everything else.
Similarly, counter to the stereotype, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, formed by a small group in 1897 to stop the mass slaughter of birds to decorate humans with feathers, is not just about birds.
Many have heard Marks credit her inspiration to Al Hawkes, the charismatic leader of Rhode Island Audubon, who expanded the organization beyond a birders’ enclave focused on preserving land as bird habitat. In the 1960s and ’70s, when the science of ecology captured the popular imagination, he widened the organization’s vision to tackle a broad array of environmental issues.
Hawkes hired Marks in 1982 to assist in policymaking and tutored her in lobbying and advocacy. Since he retired in 1993, Marks has held the role as Audubon’s principal advocate.
Their big campaign in the 1980s was to stop the Big River project — a proposed reservoir and waterworks for which the state bought 8,400 acres of land in the middle of Rhode Island. Hawkes and Marks stopped the reservoir from being built. Mind you, they didn’t do it alone.
The property is now called the Big River Management Area, and thanks to their advocacy it features some of the state’s healthiest wetlands and streamflows.
Since that environmental victory, Marks has never left her post as a natural resources protector. She continues to work on neglected watersheds, from the Branch to the Saugatucket, and on a wide range of other environmental issues, from bird habitat to climate change to transportation.
“She’s a watchdog that wags its tail,” said Bob Vanderslice of the Rhode Island Department of Health, himself one of those agency people Marks referred to for their extraordinary volunteer work outside their workday.
Marks, he said, “can be critical, providing carefully worded comments on plans, regulations. But she always thanks the people who are working on the regulations. She recognizes that we are all on the same team — that her job is to push, but that the state employees are also working hard to do the right thing.”
After graduate study of wetland ecology at Brown University, she became one of the state’s resident experts in wetlands and a relentless advocate for the protection of this key habitat of birds, amphibians and mammals.
She has asserted the need to maintain a sufficient flow of groundwater to maintain healthy stream and wetland habitats. She has held the environmental advocate seat on the Rhode Island Water Resources Board for decades.
Ask and she will tell you: Wetlands aren’t only valuable as habitat, but also as water purifiers and sponges that buffer the impacts of flooding, with all sorts of other wondrous attributes.
Marks will tell you this because she loves teaching — what she did before she became an environmental advocate — and believes that advocacy is about educating the people in positions to make changes that will better protect Rhode Island’s ecological health.
She works “to get people in power to understand. It’s not grassroots organizing per se but long-term education,” said Larry Taft, executive director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
“People think Mother Nature will solve everything, because they don’t understand how it works,” Marks said. “So Audubon tries to educate people at all levels.”
A recent example is a pamphlet she helped develop for farmers that addresses animal waste management. She worked on it with some of her Branch River project colleagues, including Paul Roselli of the Blackstone River Watershed Council and Burrillville Land Trust and former state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) geographer Terry Meyer.
Meyer checked with owners of pastures mapped by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and found out who still has animals on their property.
“Animal manure can contribute to bacteria in the groundwater, especially if its not well managed,” said Marks, as she used the opportunity to educate, even when interviewed for a profile. “A horse or cow produces about ten times the waste as a human. If not kept out of water, it can really cause a problem.”
The group created an event at Burrillville farmers markets and it tabled at fairs to educate the public and farmers about proper management of manure piles, stormwater runoff, and other sources of river contamination.
“The job now is to get more citizens interested in the (Branch) river and its potential,” Marks said.
One way the longtime educator has informed lawmakers has been through her involvement with the Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI), the state’s standing environmental action coalition, and its Education Fund.
Marks developed the Education Fund’s first educational booklets, including one on water resources and one on climate change, turning the knowledge and policy solutions of other coalitions, such as the Coalition for Water Security and the Coalition for Transportation Choices, into educational booklets for lawmakers and policymakers.
Modest and methodical, Marks often is the only person at meetings of obscure subcommittees who is there on behalf of the environment — or the only one informed about the science and best practices. She patiently waits her turn, and then, homework in hand, speaks deliberately and precisely in a quiet but no-nonsense way that demands attention — and respect.
Paul Beaudette, a longtime activist who has worked side by side with Marks on ECRI and the National Wildlife Federation for decades, put it this way when speaking about his beloved colleague: “I don’t know anyone on either side of an issue who doesn’t respect her, and I believe that’s a testimony for what she does and how she does it.”
As the proverb goes, she shows up, she shows up on time and she shows up prepared. “She’s there persistently, consistently and diligently, year after year,” said Rupert Friday, executive director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council.
Marks often is also the only environmental advocate left at General Assembly committee hearings when they run late into the evening. She patiently waits her turn, listens carefully to testimony and, again, deliberately and precisely gives her testimony.
“She seems to thrive on it,” Taft said. “She’s the one who knows where the bodies are buried — she’s got the historical perspective.”
She will see the big picture of a coalition campaign, “find a gap, and take it on and run with it,” Friday said. He added that Marks also has an ear to the ground for threats to land at the local level, and will write a letter to the municipality or turn out to testify at hearings. “For one person to do that with all the towns over the state is just huge,” said Friday.
She also keeps an eye out for threats in obscure bills submitted at the General Assembly. In 2005, she took on a bill that would have allowed the State Police to build its barracks in the Big River Management Area and eliminate its designation as open space. After fighting the bill all session, the squeeze came at the very end — a hot morning on the Fourth of July weekend, at about 3.
“She was there to the end to make sure bad legislation didn’t pass,” Friday said.
Another longtime colleague, Clean Water Action Rhode Island director Meg Kerr, carries a deep respect for Marks’ work — and for Marks the person.
“Eugenia can be hard-edged, and I was afraid of her for some time,” Kerr said. “I didn’t realize what a warm, loving person she really is until my mom moved to Rhode Island. Genie loved seeing my mom, loved talking to her. When my mom got sick with terminal cancer, Genie drove from her home in Providence to Wickford where we live, several times. She brought a basket of apples, or flowers. She would sit and talk. She was lovely and kind. It meant so much to my mom and to me.”
This warm and caring side is not the only surprise to those who know Marks only in her advocacy role. She also is a poet, and was a civil rights activist in college — one of three white students to participate in the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C, in 1960. (Listen to her being interviewed about that protest here.)
Another surprise, at least to Kerr, was seeing how much Marks still loves to entertain children as she teaches them at Audubon events.
“For many years, Audubon led Halloween hikes at the Fisherville Brook reserve in Exeter,” Kerr said. “Bob (Vanderslice, her husband) and I always took our kids — we loved the hikes. What can be better than walking at night in the woods, with fun stations set up to educate and scare you a bit?
“Eugenia always participated in the event for Audubon — and my favorite was the year she was a polyphemous moth. She was dressed in a flowing dress and she twirled around with a bottle of perfume talking in an airy voice about pheromones and how she attracts a mate with her scent. She was lovely and funny and totally not the Eugenia we are used to seeing.”
Who we are used to seeing, it seems, can be seen almost everywhere.
Though she paid her dues at the ECRI meetings, she is still at virtually every one. Her time with ECRI has included a three-year run as president. She once told me about that stint: the first year you get oriented, the second you start to get things done, and the third you hit your stride.
She is a regular at meetings of the Water Resources Board, the State Planning Council and the Coastal Resource Management Council. She attends many DEM hearings.
“She reads and absorbs the information presented and retains a fantastic amount of important detail. I am always in awe,” Kerr said. “She is an environmental watchdog — connected to a vast number of issues. And she is a hard-working contributor to so many efforts — coalitions and projects too numerous to list.”