Volunteer land trusts and underfunded nonprofits can’t handle development pressure
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Rhode Island’s splintered collection of land trusts and environmental organizations accomplish many things, but much of this important work is conducted in isolation. Intentionally or not, the state’s tangle of conservation projects are done in small groups. The collective voice of this movement is a whisper when Rhode Island needs a scream.
There’s no true unified front, statewide or even regionally, to adequately confront the constant development threats to the Ocean State’s collection of wetlands, salt marshes and open space.
The state is flush with understaffed and underfunded environmental nonprofits competing, often against each other, for the same pot of dwindling gold. It’s likely that with so many organizations going it alone, their collective message is diluted and their work, duplicated.
There’s more power in unity, especially when it comes to pushing back against politically supported corporate projects that shove aside public concern and end up diminishing the local landscape, stressing water resources and jeopardizing public health. It’s a pattern of abuse Rhode Island can’t seem to shake.
“Rhode Island continues to lose forest and soil, and our water resources are continuously threatened,” said Providence resident Greg Gerritt, an environmental advocate and founder of the think tank Prosperity for Rhode Island. “We’re in the Age of Stressed Environments.”
Natural resources need time to heal, but in a state where job creation and "cranes in the sky" is the directive from leadership, there's little opportunity. Consequently, open space becomes more fragmented. Increasing amounts of sewage and wastewater, and the chemicals used in treatment, diminish the health of Narragansett Bay. The state’s growing expanse of impervious surfaces rush a tidal wave of pesticides, fertilizers, motor oil, antifreeze and debris into local waterbodies.
The state’s collection of environmental organizations and land trusts, made up mostly of volunteers and low-paid staff, can’t compete with the compromises the state continually makes to increase unimaginative development that further erodes important natural resources.
As things currently stand, protecting the quality and quantity of Rhode Island’s dwindling open space requires concerned residents sacrificing time from work and family to sit through council, planning board and zoning meetings. It requires filling out requests for public information, which are often ignored. It requires advocates and residents spending time at the Statehouse, attending hearings and testifying. It requires being arrested for chaining oneself to construction equipment. It means writing e-mails to local representatives. It requires making signs and organizing protests and sit-ins. It means getting signatures and filing petitions. It takes blood, sweat and tears. And, of course, it requires money.
Developing open space just takes money. Everyone involved is getting paid.
The governor and Statehouse power brokers speak at chamber of commerce events. They meet with developers, investors and trade unions. Meanwhile, environmentalists are left to beg and plead for what eventually become watered-down protections that are largely ignored, like the many taxpayer-funded studies and comprehensive plans to better manage Rhode Island’s land-use practices. The governor and the power brokers mostly decline invitations to meet with environmental groups. They rarely make time to speak with protestors and advocates.
“Volunteerism drives environmentalism and it would be nice if the state supported these organizations,” Art Ganz, president of the Salt Ponds Coalition, told ecoRI News during a recent interview at the Kettle Pond Visitor Center in Charlestown. “Instead, the state cuts funding and local endeavors are lost.”
For example, during the 2016 General Assembly session, lawmakers defunded a state-mandated conservation organization. The Rhode Island State Conservation Committee was established by state law in 1944 to help meet the needs of local land users for the conservation of land and water.
By cutting funding to Rhode Island’s three conservation districts, the state will save about $36,000 annually.
The Legislature also refused to support the governor’s budget request for two additional staffers to help address environmental enforcement capacity at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
“The challenge is how do we start managing land to get to the things we want and a healthier landscape,” Carol Lynn Trocki, a Rhode Island Land Trust Council board member, recently told ecoRI News over coffee at a popular Little Compton shop.
During the seven-plus years ecoRI News has been covering environmental issues in southern New England, we have heard from many people, both affiliated and unaffiliated with Rhode Island environmental nonprofits, who believe well-intentioned environmental organizations don’t — for reasons both complex and silly — typically work in concert.
This go-at-it-alone mentality essentially creates a piecemeal approach to conservation that feeds the state’s lack of environmental vision. It’s also no match for Rhode Island’s economic development policy, which some, such as Gerritt, call “misguided” and say “mistakes real-estate speculation as economic development.”
Rhode Island’s reliance on real-estate development to grow the economy produces parking lots, office parks, big-box stores, casinos, travel plazas, truck stops and fossil-fuel power plants. Woodlands, wetlands and watersheds are sacrificed for this “progress.” Costs related to the loss of ecosystems are ignored, or never even considered. Beach closures, loss of habitat, flooding and lack of diversity are the byproducts of this shortsighted approach.
The state’s collection of terrific scientific talent, passionate environmental organizations and dedicated volunteers — combined with some strong environmental regulations — helps maintain a semblance of balance. But, as Ganz noted, “so much damage has already been done.”
Planting trees in Rhode Island’s urban core is important work to combat the heat-island effect and improve public health, but those efforts need to be matched when it comes to better protecting the state’s existing woodlands, even if they are all second-growth forests. We can’t afford to keep clearing forestland.
“Better ecological protection is the future of our economy. We’re just scratching the surface when it comes to greening the economy,” Gerritt said. “We all like to go to the water, but there’s no water access without land conservation. What makes Rhode Island livable is activism.”
Imagine what the state’s collection of environmental organizations, land trusts and volunteers could accomplish if their work and efforts were better coordinated.
The diversity of Rhode Island’s open space provides both residents and visitors with cultural, natural and recreational opportunities. These areas also help control erosion, clean the air and purify the water.
About 22 percent of Rhode Island’s 1,212 square miles has been permanently protected from development. However, some 60 percent of the state is undeveloped and unprotected, according to an op-ed written last year by DEM staffer Scott Millar, who noted that land development was increasing at a pace that was nine times faster than Rhode Island’s population growth.
“Many of our most important farms, drinking water supplies and habitat are on lands that can be developed at any time, placing these critical resources at risk,” Millar wrote. “In the past, unplanned growth has led to the loss of our working farms and forests, impaired water quality and destroyed habitat.”
Among the areas not protected are the 13,000 acres Providence Water owns around the Scituate Reservoir, which provides drinking water to 60 percent of the state.
“Providence Water could sell that land to a developer or a private water supplier that would then have all this waterfront property on the reservoir,” Rupert Friday, executive director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council, recently told ecoRI News. “There’s nothing keeping that land from being developed or sold to a developer.”
Friday also noted that future development looms over other parcels of land that many Rhode Islanders likely assume are already protected, such as the 1,800-acre Yawgoog Scout Reservation in Rockville; the University of Rhode Island’s W. Alton Jones Campus and its 2,300 acres of forests, lakes and farmland in West Greenwich; and Brown University’s 372-acre Haffenreffer property in Bristol.
The assault on the state’s open space began in the 1940s. Since then, Rhode Island has lost 80 percent of its farmland, according to Friday.
Rhode Island’s first land trusts — the Sakonnet Preservation Association and the Block Island Conservancy — were created 44 years ago, three decades after much of the state’s farmland was lost to subdivisions and cul-de-sacs. Rhode Island’s current collection of local land trusts has been playing catch up ever since, protecting nearly 37,000 acres since 1972 — about a quarter of the land now conserved in Rhode Island.
But volunteer land trusts and conservation commissions can’t compete with politicians in leadership roles and special interests who have little problem draining the Ocean State’s natural resources for political and economic gain.
There are many forces at play — free enterprise, for one — that don’t favor open-space protection. The biggest, however, has to be the ability of developers, who already have the ear of politicians, to overwhelm volunteer organizations and boards with a cache of well-paid attorneys and experts.
John Foley, president of the Tiverton Land Trust, said finding people who are committed to land preservation and have time to volunteer is enough of a challenge. Just keeping up with the bookkeeping and day-to-day operations can be a grind.
“People have busy lives, kids, and most families have two adults working full-time jobs,” he said. “It can be difficult to carve out the necessary time.”
The Tiverton Land Trust was created in 1997 by four residents concerned that one of the few remaining large farms in town was about to be sold to a developer who planned to build 80 to 100 single-family homes on the 237-acre site. It took three years, plenty of sweat equity and $1.2 million to keep the property from being developed.
The property was renamed the Pardon Gray Preserve. It abuts Weetamoo Woods, another preserved property in Tiverton. These two properties shape the start of a coastal greenway distinguished by the unusual growth of an oak-holly forest. It’s one of few such forests remaining on the East Coast.
The Tiverton Land Trust has protected nearly 10 properties and some 475 acres since Matta Farm was saved. Identifying properties to protect, rallying community support, keeping tabs on conservation easements after preserved lands change hands and raising money takes time and effort. It’s not an easy task, especially when the forces of capitalism start pushing.
“We have more properties to preserve than we have dollars to spend,” Foley told ecoRI News during a visit last month to his downtown Providence law office. “We’re always trying to find money to protect land.”
Biologists, ecologists and foresters ecoRI News has spoken with over the years have expressed concerns about the condition of Rhode Island’s dwindling forestlands and the impact their declining health is having on wildlife, rivers and streams, and the state’s overall well-being.
Recent development projects, such as the corporate office park being built in the Johnston woods, are further chopping Rhode Island’s remaining forests into fragmented blocks. A proposed casino in Tiverton, a travel plaza and truck stop in Hopkinton, and a fossil-fuel power plant in Burrillville threaten to increase this fragmentation and further impede nature’s ability to recover, much less thrive.
The continued fragmentation of Rhode Island’s open space increases the potential for invasive species, such as Japanese barberry and multiflora rose, to displace established vegetation, decreases the value of habitat and lessens climate resiliency.
With so many elected officials, such as Gov. Gina Raimondo and Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, who seem to believe the best way for Rhode Island to move forward is to put cranes in the sky, it seems prudent that a strong environmental counterbalance is needed to help steer more development projects to the state’s substantial inventory of vacant office buildings, big-box stores, old mills and brownfields.
It took five months from the time the Citizens Bank president and governor held a joint press conference in March to announce plans to build the banking office park — on 123 acres in northern Johnston — to cut down the first tree. The office park will feature 2,408 parking spots, a main building, a cafe/amenity building with two stores, and two office buildings with room for future expansion. No environmental impact study was done.
Opposition to clear-cutting some 60 acres of woodland never materialized, and the concerns of a handful of Greenville Avenue residents who said they felt blindsided by the project’s swift progress were brushed aside by the mayor.
Swift-moving development projects, like the one in Johnston, bring up a reasonable question: Should Rhode Island’s collection of 48 land trusts advocate for open-space protection statewide or should they just focus on preserving local properties?
The Tiverton Land Trust, for one, doesn’t believe it's in its best interest to take sides. It’s a view shared by many who volunteer on land trusts. One of the main reasons land trusts are reluctant to get involved in matters of advocacy is so not to offend active or potential donors. There’s also the matter of political pushback.
“We feel that it’s not our place to take positions on political issues of land development that we aren’t directly involved in,” said Foley, a Bristol native who has called Tiverton home for the past 27 years.
Those legitimate concerns effectively leave Rhode Island without a forest-protection equivalent of Save The Bay, as individual land conservation organizations with a collective lack of resources can put up little more than some spotty defense.
The Barrington Land Conservation Trust, for instance, hasn’t made an acquisition in a decade. The Johnston Land Trust didn’t make a peep regarding the Citizens Bank project. The Hopkinton Land Trust didn’t respond to an ecoRI News request for comment on this story.
“Land trusts have shifted from buying property to managing conservation easements and community assets,” Friday of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council said. “Planning and zoning alone won’t keep nice pieces of property from being developed. Land conservation still plays an important role.”
Fourteen years ago, in an attempt to facilitate better cross-communication between Rhode Island’s 48 land trusts, 33 conservation commissions and 12 watershed groups, Friday and Meg Kerr, now the senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, began hosting the Land and Water Conservation Summit.
The daylong conference — like the Compost Conference & Trade Show — attracts some 300 attendees annually, but it takes time for hands-on workshops and networking events to collectively sink in.
Land Trust Council board member Trocki regularly attends the Land and Water Summit and has led a workshop at the annual conference. The Little Compton resident said the state’s land trusts need support and guidance. She also said that community-specific movements like “Save the Farm” or “Stop the Walmart” are effective tools in preserving open space.
“Land conservation is so community driven,” Trocki said. “Land is personal. It’s about protecting the places that are five minutes from your house. The stuff you see walking the dog.”
The behind-the-scenes challenge, she said, is managing the conserved land.
“Communities are passionate about saving land, but the paperwork is much less sexy,” said Trocki, a self-employed conservation biologist who often works with private landowners. “We’ve protected all this land but now we need to manage it and understand it.”
Rhode Island’s cornucopia of state and local plans, strategies, guidelines and studies related to land use and environmental protections actually leaves the state without a go-to document. This paperwork mess, combined with builder-written bills passed annually by the General Assembly that chip away at buffer zones and other environmental protections, has titled the paradigm toward development that shuns considering places with existing infrastructure and paved surfaces.
Trocki said the state lacks a land-protection plan that is actually working toward something.
“What’s the vision? Where do we want to go?” she asked. “What do we want our communities to look like fifty to one hundred years from now? What will our agriculture look like? We don’t spend enough time figuring out where we want to go.”
There’s no unified plan, Trocki said, because “until you have experience with a piece of land you have no connection to it.”
Thus, Rhode Island’s 48 land trusts, 39 municipalities, numerous villages and countless neighborhoods hunker down while the state slowly gets picked apart.
The creation of pocket parks, grassroots conservation efforts, and the exhaustive efforts, and money, needed to protect places deemed “special” can’t keep up with development pressures.
The woods being felled to make way for office parks, casinos and rest areas are often dismissed as insignificant by those eager to fire up the bulldozers. The fact is these shrugged-off places provide important ecological and economical benefits, and doing a better job of keeping them intact would also help the Ocean State better deal with a changing climate.
The Statehouse, though, decided decades ago that business relationships are more important than environmental protections. DEM funding was slashed and its staff cut. It’s now an annual exercise to keep the agency’s budget level funded.
Friday said DEM employees who worked with land trusts, municipal officials and private landowners were laid off years ago as assistance resources evaporated, creating an expertise void that remains today.
Ganz, president of the Salt Ponds Coalition, retired from DEM’s Department of Natural Resources in 2005, after 35 years. He said the state agency is too fond of “cockamamie compromises” that help development. He noted development projects approved in coastal zones in South Kingstown and Narragansett, such as Green Hill, as prime examples.
“Two thirty-five Promenade Street is just cubicle upon cubicle,” Ganz said of DEM’s headquarters in downtown Providence. “When DEM began laying off staff in the 1980s it was the worker bees, not the top spots, whose jobs were eliminated. Skeleton crews are managing our state parks and beaches. The amount of field workers is grossly understaffed.”
Ultimately, a deep-rooted Statehouse mindset that protecting the environment somehow hinders the economy was developed. Rhode Island’s penchant for approving environmentally friendly bonds won't curb the state’s fondness for unnecessarily kissing business ass.
Late last year, DEM send out a Tweet praising the environmental work of an East Providence business that has spilled some 4,700 gallons of ethanol during the past few years, and has been fined by the very same agency for air-pollution violations, for such things as failing to capture volatile organic compounds and ammonia emissions.
Earlier this year, the governor and the state’s congressional delegation loudly applauded Citizens Bank for cleaning up a 4-acre wooded landfill — an illegal operation Rhode Island allowed to operate for a decade and then ignored for decades more — by covering it with asphalt, concrete and steel, and clear-cutting 50 more acres.
In fact, Gov. Raimondo’s “laser focus on economic development,” as Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., boasted during the Citizens Bank groundbreaking ceremony in August, forces her administration to see the environment simply as a means to create jobs and grow the economy.
The Rhode Island Outdoor Recreation Council was created by the governor to increase “awareness about the use and enjoyment of recreational and environmental assets.”
But Rhode Island’s wonderful collection of natural resources are more than economic assets. Our beaches, bays, ponds, lakes, wetlands, watersheds, salt marshes and forests don’t simply exist to drive tourism. (DEM notes that this is a $2.4 billion industry that supports 24,000 jobs.) They do more than provide habitat for the fish we catch and the game we hunt. They also clean the air, protect our drinking water, nurture the food we grow, and protect us from storm surge and flooding.
These shared natural resources demand vigilant protection, but the Interim Report of the Rhode Island Outdoor Recreation Council released in July, for instance, seems to believe the Ocean State’s economic assets no longer need protection.
According to the report, “Rhode Island has effectively preserved its considerable natural resources and developed facilities and programming to enable public enjoyment.”
It also found that the “use of outdoor resources in Rhode Island by residents and visitors is less than optimal, and there is room to grow this sector of the state’s economy.”
Properly protecting the environment involves more than building hiking trails, cleaning seaweed from popular beaches, creating more habitat for hunting, and developing office parks that offer the community a paved space to enjoy less trees.
“We’re preserving nature for people — hiking trails, boat ramps. We’re not preserving biodiversity,” retired DEM employee Rick Enser, who worked for the state agency for 28 years, told ecoRI News this past summer. “Building trails and fancy boardwalks look great, but they’re not helping the environment.”