Rhode Island Should Lead by Example to Prevent Loss of Forestland

By SCOTT WOLF and SCOTT MILLAR

 Protecting Rhode Island’s forests is important both economically and environmentally. (Grow Smart Rhode Island)

Protecting Rhode Island’s forests is important both economically and environmentally. (Grow Smart Rhode Island)

Grow Smart Rhode Island supports the state’s ambitious renewable-energy goal. We believe reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is critical to enhance the quality of our environment and mitigate the effects of climate change. But how we achieve this goal is as important as reaching the goal itself.

Continuing to clear-cut thousands of trees in pursuit of this goal is unacceptable and unnecessary. We can and must do better. That’s why we enthusiastically support the Rhode Island Forest Conservation Act (H-8141).

This act would require the state to lead by example and not fund or provide any incentives to encourage renewable-energy development on any portion of forested tracts of 250 acres or greater. These forested areas have been determined by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to be crucial to maintain the best forest values.

By far, the greatest and most urgent threat to forest loss is the existing State Renewable Energy incentive policy that is inadvertently but dramatically encouraging the large-scale clear-cutting of forests for renewable-energy development. It’s doing so by not providing any targeted economic incentives for renewable-energy development in environmentally preferable but more expensive locations such as landfills, brownfields, rooftops, parking lots, and gravel pits.

Our conservative estimate suggests there are more than 1,000 acres of land where utility-scale solar development has already been developed or proposed. Moreover, a request by the state for proposals for an additional 400 megawatts of renewable energy is scheduled to be issued this summer. If only half of that is ground-based solar, and our existing state renewable-energy subsidies aren’t changed, an additional 1,000 acres of forested land could be clear-cut.

Another pending bill, the Rhode Island Energy Resources Act (H-7793), unfortunately doesn’t address the urgency for the Ocean State to change its current renewable energy-siting incentives to encourage subsequent renewable-energy facilities to be located on developed or disturbed locations and disincentives to prevent the continued loss of Rhode Island’s natural assets. Massachusetts and Vermont have already established such economic incentives and disincentives, and Connecticut is in the process of developing its own siting reforms.

We believe that Rhode Island must learn from the mistakes that prompted these states to reform their renewable energy-siting programs. Simply adopting the model municipal renewable energy-siting ordinance that would be required by H-7793 wouldn’t prevent the further clearing of forests.

Over the past few years, prior to the recent solar-energy development boom, Rhode Island has seen significantly more development within our urban services boundary than in rural forested towns. In fact, many rural towns haven’t had a major subdivision in several years. Moreover, most new subdivisions are using some form of conservation development to preserve about 50 percent of the site in perpetuity. The state’s low-impact development stormwater regulations encourage less land clearing and the preservation of native vegetation for all development.

So the clear and present danger to Rhode Island forests right now is renewable-energy development, not residential subdivisions, strip malls or big-box stores. Nevertheless, we recommend amending the Forest Conservation Act to prohibit any state subsidies and incentives for encouraging any development on any portion of forested tracts of 250 acres or greater.

Since there is a critical need to prevent any further forest fragmentation, we also support an amendment that would require DEM to establish a broad-based advisory group to thoroughly assess all options for preventing the net loss of forestland to maintain forest values and attain the greenhouse gas-reduction targets established in the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014. Since it’s urgent to prevent subsequent forest loss, this group should report on its findings no later than Dec. 31.

Protecting Rhode Island’s forests is important both economically and environmentally. Rhode Island-grown wood products contribute about $700 million annually to the local economy and support some 3,000 jobs. Our forests also provide clean air and drinking water, and valuable wildlife habitat.

In addition, our forests play a critical role in mitigating climate change. The Resilient Rhode Island Act’s required greenhouse gas-reduction levels can only be reached by no further net loss of forest, according to the Rhode Island Greenhouse Reduction Plan. This plan also determined that electricity consumption contributed only 20 percent of Rhode Island’s greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. So when Rhode Island is able to generate all of its electricity from renewable energy there will still be a need to reduce 80 percent of our annual GHG emissions to comply with the Resilient Rhode Island Act.

Neither solar nor wind facilities can absorb or store carbon, so these mandatory annual GHG reductions must come from other sources. Forests have been recently documented by The Nature Conservancy as the most economical mean to absorb and store carbon. Rhode Island’s forests can absorb and store 30 percent of the state’s annual GHG emissions, as determined by using a number of sources in consultation with DEM.

Therefore, Rhode Island forests are currently mitigating 50 percent more of the annual GHG emissions than what can be expected when Rhode Island gets all of its electricity from renewable energy.

The subsequent clearing of forests for renewable-energy development is actually making it more difficult and expensive to comply with the GHG-reduction targets. For every acre of forestland lost, Rhode Island is losing the opportunity to absorb the annual emissions from two cars. DEM has estimated that the carbon storage value of Rhode Island forests to be $39 million annually.

By adopting the Rhode Island Forest Conservation Act, the state can achieve our greenhouse gas-reduction and renewable energy-development goals while avoiding damage to our natural resources and community character. This is the kind of achievable “win-win” scenario for our environment and quality of place that must become an urgent state priority.

Scott Wolf is executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island and Scott Millar is the organization’s manager for community assistance.