R.I. Sends Mixed Messages About Importance of Trees

Since 2011 Rhode Island has lost some 2,000 acres in areas of environmental concern within the state’s forests to development. (ecoRI News)

Since 2011 Rhode Island has lost some 2,000 acres in areas of environmental concern within the state’s forests to development. (ecoRI News)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

At an Arbor Day celebration late last month in Woonsocket, Rhode Island officials gushed about the importance of trees.

Janet Coit, director Department of Environmental Management: “The simple act of planting a tree has so many environmental benefits. One tree, planted in the right place, can improve air quality, sequester carbon, and help manage stormwater runoff. It’s a tangible way to stand up to climate change and beautify our communities at the same time.”

Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director Department of Health: “Trees are enormously beneficial to the health of people and communities. Trees reduce stress, promote physical activity, clean and cool the air, and help us fight climate change.”

Jeffrey Diehl, CEO Infrastructure Bank: “The Infrastructure Bank is proud to join our state and local partners to recognize Arbor Day. Together we are focused on preparing Rhode Island communities to be resilient against the effects of climate change through infrastructure improvements, planning, and long-term protection of important natural resources.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo: “Trees are critical in our fight against climate change, and statewide urban tree planning was one of the key strategies identified in our Resilient Rhody report as a way to build climate resiliency in our state.”

It’s highly unlikely, however, that the $650,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to increase urban forests statewide will be enough to replace the thousands clear-cut, mostly in rural areas, during the past several years to make room for ground-mounted solar arrays and other open-space development. Hundreds more are on the proverbial chopping block.

The surge in open-space solar development in particular has frustrated neighbors and conservationists, as parcels of rural green space, most of it privately owned, in residential areas have been converted into utility-scale solar facilities. A bill, held for further study in March, crafted by a stakeholders group to deal with this controversial issue has created a rift between environmentalists. Opponents of the Rhode Island Energy Resources Act say it doesn’t do enough to protect tracts of important forestland. Supporters say the protections it provides are better than nothing.

As environmentalists, municipal planners, developers, landowners, and state officials continue to debate the pros and cons of expanding Rhode Island’s renewable-energy megawatts on open space, the bulldozing of trees continues.

All the fawning over trees in the governor’s April 26 press release doesn’t match the lack of public concern expressed by DEM, DOH, the Infrastructure Bank, or Raimondo regarding the loss of trees to solar panels and other development when the state has a vast inventory (click here for a small sample) of vacant and underused already-disturbed space, such as commercial rooftops, parking lots, empty big-box stores, and brownfields.

The disconnect is as fragmented as Rhode Island’s forestland and policy.

The Resilient Rhody report, which the governor cites in her Arbor Day quote, notes that the state’s forests “provide numerous economic, recreational, ecological, and human health benefits.”

“These forests contribute to significant natural resources and ecological services,” according to the state’s climate preparedness strategy. “Additional benefits include soil health and conservation, carbon sequestration and improved air quality, and wildlife habitat.”

The report also notes that “Rhode Island’s urban and rural forests are susceptible to a changing climate and the impacts are already beginning to take shape.”

Open-space development isn’t mentioned as having an effect on Rhode Island’s tree density or its ability to mitigate climate change. The emerald ash borer, a non-native insect first detected in Rhode Island last summer, is presented as a greater concern. The insect’s impact on the “reduction in tree canopy will have quality of life and direct environmental impacts in urban areas,” according to Resilient Rhody.

The Resilient Rhody strategy seems to take suburban and rural forestland for granted. Protecting it is barely mentioned. It’s all about city trees.

“Urban forests provide a multitude of benefits, including soil stabilization and flood mitigation in areas of high impervious surface. Ecological benefits include water quality, soil conservation, air quality, and wildlife habitat.”

“Urban trees also give a sense of pride to communities and bring people together for planting, care, and recreation. Other benefits include aesthetic improvement and public health and welfare.”

All true. Urban trees are vital, need to be protected, and the amount of them increased.

However, the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014, which was widely praised when it was approved, states repeatedly that maintaining forest cover and preventing fragmentation is imperative to achieving the state’s greenhouse-gas reduction goals. It recommended a zero-net forest loss strategy, as increased fragmentation of the state’s core forests lessens the ability for natural systems to function and reduces forestland benefits, such as the sequestering of carbon and climate-change mitigation.

Each of the Arbor Day quotes from the four Rhode Island officials mentions the importance of trees when it comes to addressing climate change. DEM has estimated that Rhode Island’s forests have the potential to absorb as much as 30 percent of the state’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions.

Rhode Island, however, is losing its tree cover. A recent University of Rhode Island study found that since 2011 the state has lost nearly 2,000 acres in areas of environmental concern within the state’s forests to development.

The Ocean State’s urban trees need backup.