Plans to create shrubland habitat and expand fossil-fuel infrastructure could damage the biodiversity provided by southern New England’s forestlands
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Video by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Rick Enser worked for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for nearly three decades. He spent those 28 years as the coordinator of DEM’s now-defunct Natural Heritage Program, working to protect and preserve the state’s collection of forests.
“The program was all about biodiversity, and Rhode Island’s biodiversity is intimately connected to the eastern deciduous forest,” Enser wrote in a June 28 e-mail to ecoRI News. “Except for a minor recovery after the decline of agriculture following the Civil War, it’s all been downhill since the day ‘What cheer, Netop?’ was uttered.”
Today, the South Kingstown resident is concerned about the condition of the state’s remaining — and fast-dwindling — forestlands, and the impact of their declining health on Rhode Island’s flora and fauna.
“Even more disturbing to an ecologist is the poor condition of the remaining forest — chopped into blocks and cut over so many times that it has never been able to truly recover,” he wrote.
Forest fragmentation, for one, increases the potential for invasive species, such as multiflora rose and Japanese barberry, to displace established vegetation and decrease the value of the ecosystem’s habitat.
Fragmentation and urbanization also are inextricably linked to the effects of climate change, according to the state’s most recent Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan (RI WAP), because the dispersal and migration of forest plants and animals are disrupted.
In 2008, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, a consortium of ecologists and naturalists working together to advance scientific knowledge of the state’s biota, ecosystems and environmental resources, honored Enser with its Distinguished Naturalist Award.
In her nomination letter, Lisa Gould, a founding member of the consortium and the organization’s first executive director, wrote, “Rick has the heart of a naturalist and the brains of a scientist, and has contributed greatly to our understanding of Rhode Island’s biota and ecological communities, and to people’s love of them.”
ecoRI News visited with Enser last month at his South County home. His love for nature and its creatures evident, in both his words and surroundings. After he fed the goats, we spoke at length outside, not far from a garden of native plants designed to attract native pollinators. In the background, a noisy rooster let the chickens know he was still there, and a dog relaxed at our feet.
During his DEM career, Enser worked to protect Rhode Island’s biological diversity through a program of inventory, restoration work, environmental impact reviews and conservation planning. He said the state agency now lacks the resources to continue that work. He said much of work done by the Natural Heritage Program has since been devalued.
“Science people have been cut and the agency downsized,” he said.
Enser noted that although the loss of some species to deforestation, such as wild turkeys, is common knowledge, he and others have documented the loss of at least 40 species of plants from the state’s forests — at least 10 of these in the past 20 years, he said.
“There’s barely any forest left in Rhode Island,” Enser said. “The state’s forests are struggling badly.”
He blames those struggles on a combination of things: an overpopulation of deer; development; the unknown consequences of climate change combined with other stressors; and poor land-use management.
The 2008 forest survey of Rhode Island reported a total of 348,400 acres of forest in the state — a reduction of more than 11 percent from the 393,000 acres reported in 1998, according to the 2015 RI WAP. The past eight years haven’t been any kinder to the state’s collection of forests.
Enser and others, such as John Campanini Jr., the longtime director of the Rhode Island Tree Council, and Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust, believe Rhode Island needs to better protect its remaining forestland.
These three individuals are respected for their conservation work and experience. DEM has awarded Campanini with the Alfred L. Hawkes Environmental Award, given to those who have “with uncommon effort, immeasurably advanced the preservation, protection, and enhancement of the natural resources of our state.”
“John has worked to foster a greener, sustainable urban environment in Providence and has made Rhode Island a better place to live by dedicating himself to improving our environment,” according to the DEM press release announcing the honor.
It’s disconcerting then to hear Campanini say something like this to ecoRI News earlier this year: “Our land-based resources, soils, trees and plants, haven’t gotten the attention and funding needed to repair themselves. We keep increasing our impervious surface landscape.”
The benefits of healthy land-based resources, such as forests, include better air and water quality, diverse wildlife habitat and ecosystem stability.
“Trees are a capital asset,” Campanini said. “We need a rational approach to protection that respects our trees.”
All three men have noted that a large section of an important land-based resource would be leveled to make room for a proposed power plant in Burrillville. The Clear River Energy Center would become the second fossil-fuel facility to be sited in Rhode Island’s forested northwest corner.
The nearly 1,000-megawatt natural-gas/diesel power plant would be sited among some 16,000 acres of protected wilderness in three states: George Washington Management Area, Durfee Hill Management Area and Buck Hill Management Area; Quaddick State Park in Thompson, Conn.; and Douglas State Forest and Mine Brook Wildlife Management Area in Massachusetts.
This tri-state area is one of the most highly-valued land-based ecosystems in southern New England, and it’s been estimated that the power plant’s construction would impact at least 200 acres of forestland. The area’s woods are home to about 165 wildlife species, including the hairy woodpecker, the black-throated green warbler, the wood frog, eastern box turtle, big brown bat, the six-spotted tiger beetle, and possibly the wood turtle, which has become increasingly rare because of its complex habitat needs.
“There’s few places left in Rhode Island with this type of tree canopy,” Roselli told ecoRI News this past spring. “It’s a pretty dense property and part of the state’s last contiguous forest canopy. It seems incomprehensible that anyone would think of breaking that up.”
Enser noted that since the overall condition of Rhode Island's forests are so degraded, any tract that contributes either size or uniqueness should be considered significant. He said the area where the Clear River Energy Center is proposed is the largest tract of forestland in Rhode Island and contains a higher biodiversity than any other forest in the state.
The proposed fossil-fuel plant could harm the area’s biodiversity in two ways, according to Enser: the direct mortality of flora and fauna by the project’s footprint and the indirect impacts to the surrounding landscape.
Enser told ecoRI News last month that these possible impacts should be professionally reviewed by ecologists and conservation biologists. Although the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), he said, “should be thinking about these issues, there is no government agency that currently employs the professionals capable of supplying the answers.”
There’s too little data available to make an informed decision about the power plant’s impact on the surrounding ecosystem, he said. And that’s the problem.
Enser said conducting ecological reviews is difficult, especially for a project like the Clear River Energy Center. He noted that a paper out of Canada looked at the impact of noise at natural-gas compressor stations in Alberta. The basic noise level at these stations, he said, was reported as 75-90 decibels at the source, which is less than the 100-plus decibels expected at Clear River.
At 75-90 decibels, the researchers found that forest bird communities were being impacted at least 2,300 feet from the source, according to Enser. Translating this figure, the Clear River site would mean that at least 500 acres of forest would be impacted by noise — “far more than the 200-acre figure we mostly hear as forest loss related to this project,” he said.
The Natural Heritage Program (NHP) was created in 1978, in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy, to identify Rhode Island’s most significant species and ecosystems and to set priorities for biodiversity conservation. The program was an important resource to federal, state and local agencies when it came addressing biodiversity issues.
The more that is known about biodiversity, for instance, the more predictable permitting can become for developers. In fact, it could be argued that better biodiversity knowledge would be an economic asset — a tool to improve the business climate by helping to create timely and systematic reviews of permits and projects while also protecting environmental health and ecosystem resiliency.
State officials nine years ago, however, didn’t believe it was worth continuing to fund the program, leaving the management of the NHP database, which includes thousands of records of rare species and natural communities, to the Rhode Island Natural History Survey (RINHS) — an underfunded nonprofit.
The organization receives no state funding for its efforts, except free office space at the state university and, this year anyway, a $1,000 legislative grant from a senator to fund invasive species work.
The nonprofit’s environmental work on the rare species/heritage program and biodiversity monitoring, to name just a few of its tasks the state takes advantage of to meet its environmental management responsibilities, is largely funded by the generosity of the organization’s 400 members.
Creating hunting habitat
The Clear River Energy Center isn’t the only project that worries Enser. A federal initiative that would convert thousands of acres of Northeast forestland to shrubland also has the botanist concerned.
The goal of the proposed Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge (GTNWR) is to create areas for wildlife that require what is known as early-successional habitat — land that is producing the first shrubs and other vegetation that grow after large trees have been removed.
Earlier this year, Enser wrote a lengthy letter to the Northeast division of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) questioning the agency’s proposal to establish the refuge at 10 areas throughout New England, except Vermont, and New York.
The idea behind the six-state refuge is to help stem the decline of shrubland-dependent wildlife species, such as New England cottontail and the American woodcock, according to the agency’s draft report. The estimated cost to acquire the 15,000 acres for the proposed wildlife refuge is between $84 million and $129 million. The plan has support from wildlife biologists, ecologists and bureaucrats.
In a Jan. 19 USFWS press release, DEM director Janet Coit expresses her support for the refuge.
“Restoring vital habitat such as young forests, old fields and thickets is a high priority as we work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners to conserve declining wildlife populations,” Coit is quoted. “As part of our conservation efforts, we’ve created over 120 acres of new shrub thickets in our wildlife management areas and plan an additional 500 acres to benefit the New England cottontail, American woodcock, ruffed grouse, songbirds, and many other native species. We’ve also worked with private landowners to educate them on the benefits of investing in young forests and to create over 570 acres of wildlife habitat across the state. We look forward to partnering on this multi-state effort to further protect precious land resources and to conserve imperiled wildlife. By providing a place for wildlife to rebound and thrive, we also improve the quality of our communities for people.”
Through coordination with conservation partners, the USFWS has determined that areas of southern Washington County in Rhode Island could provide important habitat for shrubland wildlife and help connect existing conservation areas, according to the press release.
The objective is to buy some 3,200 acres in Washington County — a plan that troubles Enser. He told the USFWS that the management actions planned within the targeted acres in Rhode Island would create smaller forest blocks. He noted that at least 17 of the 23 priority birds of mature deciduous forest habitat in southern New England currently nest within the plan’s Rhode Island focus area.
“What will be the impacts to these species?” he asked.
Urbanization and agricultural uses have reduced overall forest cover and tract size of what historically was a well-forested area, Enser said, noting that conservation efforts should be concentrated on maintaining the existing large tracts of mature deciduous forest and well-forested landscapes.
The USFWS and other federal agencies, however, see the issue differently. In a July 19 press release, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says there has been a major shift in the age classes of forests, blaming "a lack of fires that occurred historically, plus forest management practices that don't support healthy and diverse habitats."
The Northeast’s forests have changed during the past 50 years, as older forests have come to dominate huge expanses of the eastern United States, according to the press release. Both game and non-game species that rely on young forests are in decline, including the New England cottontail (NEC).
“When it comes to a healthy landscape, diversity is key,” Christine Clarke, a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service state conservationist in Massachusetts, is quoted in the release. “In much of the East, young forests are uncommon, and this decline is having negative impacts on wildlife. We’re working with landowners who want to manage forests in a way that is mutually beneficial to their operations, the New England cottontail and many other species that depend on early successional habitats."
Campanini, the longtime director of the R.I. Tree Council, told ecoRI News earlier this year that development, disease and natural disasters, like the 1938 hurricane, have wiped out many of the Ocean State’s grandest trees. He said it takes a century for trees to mature.
“People will say why bother to protect this scrawny piece of forest, but that’s the character of a juvenile forest after 75 years,” he said in May, when talking about the idea to build a 420,000-square-foot corporate banking campus on 109 acres of forestland in Johnston. “It takes a hundred years for trees to mature. If we keep cutting down juvenile forests, what will be left in the future?”
In the hardwood forest types, the Natural Resources Conservation Service works with landowners to remove 70 percent to 90 percent of the forest canopy, “which will spark a rapid response by the understory shrubs and regenerating trees thus creating the thicket habitat preferred by NEC,” according to the July 19 USDA press release.
“Shrublands and young forest habitats in the Northeastern United States have declined dramatically over the past century, primarily as a result of the decline of agricultural land use, forest maturation, development pressures, and wetland draining and filling,” according to the 178-page USFWS draft report. “Many shrubland-dependent wildlife species are rapidly disappearing along with their now-imperiled habitat, and have been identified as high priorities for conservation.”
Hunting and fishing would be allowed in the proposed Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge.
Enser, however, believes the USFWS proposal, in an ecological sense, is a poor idea. His letter doesn’t hide his contempt for the plan.
“Although the NHP biodiversity information remains readily accessible, USFWS staff has not solicited this information from RINHS in preparing their proposal for the GTNWR, and this unfortunate oversight is clearly reflected in the quality of the document and the logic of its conclusions,” he wrote back in March.
Enser told ecoRI News last month that the USFWS plan lacked direction. “The significant amount of forest to be taken to create this is absurd,” he said.
His March 1 letter to the USFWS makes his feelings about sacrificing forestland for specific hunting grounds clearly known.
“In the opinion of wildlife managers the regrowth of the region’s forests is threatening species associated with early successional habitats, and hindering their mission of providing a sustainable resource of game species for human consumption,” Enser wrote. “To support this contention the draft protection plan cites evidence for the decline of early successional species, but the presentation has the flavor of a political stump speech, laden with hyperbole, enigmatic phrases, and unsubstantiated conclusions that have been carefully chosen to muster public support for a dubious proposal.”
The federal agency, which relies heavily on an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and archery gear (the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, $824 million in 2014) and excise taxes on sport fishing equipment (the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act) for funding, is creating habitat for hunters at the expense of biodiversity, according to Enser.
The sale of hunting and fishing licenses, tags and stamps is the primary source of funding for most state wildlife conservation efforts, including Rhode Island.
Enser believes, that by using a single sampling methodology and questionable evidence, the USFWS is underestimating the populations of American woodcock and New England cottontail to make the argument for increased hunting habitat.
“A regional inventory to evaluate the current distribution of the NEC determined that its range has declined by 86 percent since 1960,” according to the federal agency’s refuge draft plan.
Enser has essentially called that figure rubbish, writing: “How do we know what the ‘range’ of NEC was in 1960 if the genetic techniques used for separating it from Eastern cottontail were only recently developed?”
He said if the USFWS was so concerned about the species’ well-being the agency wouldn’t have delisted the rabbit. Last September the USFWS removed the New England cottontail from its list of species considered for protection, meaning the federal agency has a “high certainty” that conservation programs will be successful and the species will recover without formal protections.
In Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island — four of the six states involved in the creation of the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge — New England cottontail can legally be hunted. The two other states, Maine and New Hampshire, list the rabbit as an endangered species.
Enser blames the sampling methodology called the singing-ground survey for the USFWS’s claim that the American woodcock population has declined by 40 percent. He noted that other samplings and surveys, including Breeding Bird Atlas projects, such as the one conducted in Massachusetts, have concluded that the American woodcock is “widespread and likely increasing.”
The American woodcock is a popular game bird, with some 540,000 killed annually in the United States, according to the USFWS.
“The PR (Pittman-Robertson) funds are for hunting of course,” Enser said. “U.S. Fish and Wildlife has so much money; it’s through the roof. The sales of assault rifles should go toward mental-health issues; they’re not for hunting. But all that money is going into mismanaging wildlife, because Fish and Wildlife has so much money it doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s discouraging. We’re preserving nature for people — hiking trails, boat ramps. We’re not preserving biodiversity. Building trails and fancy boardwalks look great, but they’re not helping the environment.”