A Fight is Brewing Over Rhode Island’s Forests

A bitter fight is brewing at the Rhode Island State House over a series of forestry bills. Supporters argue the measures will prevent wildfires through sustainable logging. But critics claim they’re a timber industry ploy to clearcut public lands for profit, setting up an emotional battle over the future of the Ocean State’s forests.

Rhode Island News: A Fight is Brewing Over Rhode Island’s Forests

March 14, 2024, 10:47 am

By Uprise RI Staff

Deep within the corridors of power at the Rhode Island State House, an intense battle is taking shape over the future of the Ocean State’s forests. A series of bills have been introduced that proponents say will help prevent devastating wildfires and promote sustainable forest management. But critics argue the measures are a thinly-veiled attempt by the timber industry to increase logging on public lands for private profit.

At the center of the controversy is the “Forestry and Forest Parity Act” (2024 H 7618), sponsored by Representative Megan Cotter. The bill would provide significant tax breaks for commercial logging operations, remove zoning restrictions on where they can take place, and formally declare timber harvesting a “permitted use” in essentially all areas of the state.

“We need to adapt to our changing climate with a new and more vigorous approach to forest management,” Cotter wrote in a recent op-ed for RI News Today. “That means we must work as partners with landowners, helping them safely manage the risks of fires, for their benefit and the safety of the public.”

But Nathan Cornell, President of the Old Growth Tree Society, sees the legislation very differently. In a letter sent to media outlets, he alleges H 7618 is designed to “make it more profitable to the timber industry to clearcut log forests on state land as well as clearcut forests for solar and residential developments.”

The dispute highlights the difficult tradeoffs between environmental conservation and economic activity. Forests play a vital role removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, filtering groundwater, and mitigating urban heat islands. But they also represent a valuable commercial resource if harvested judiciously.

According to Cotter’s op-ed, “Fifty-four percent of Rhode Island is forested, which is impressive considering it’s the second-most densely populated state in the nation.” She argues more active management is needed as climate change brings hotter, drier conditions that increase wildfire risk.

Cornell, however, claims reports from the U.S. Forest Service show that logging operations can exacerbate fire hazards by leaving behind flammable debris known as “slash.” He cites a project underway by the state’s Department of Environmental Management to thin forests in the Arcadia Management Area, arguing it is being “disguised” as fire mitigation.

The debate extends beyond H 7618 to several related pieces of legislation making their way through the General Assembly. Cotter is also sponsoring a bill (H 7550) to allocate $3 million from the state’s Green Bond fund for “forest and habitat management” – which critics say is code for logging.

Another Cotter-sponsored measure (H 7258) would add 10 new staff positions to DEM’s Division of Forestry. Cornell alleges the real purpose is to ramp up timber harvesting in state forests and other public woodlands.

Cotter portrayed the forestry bills as being about responsible environmental stewardship in her op-ed. She touted the creation of a new House commission she chairs “to determine the best action for improving forest management” by bringing together “experts and stakeholders.”

But Cornell questions the commission’s objectivity, noting that Cotter and the Republican House Minority Leader Michael Chippendale – who co-sponsored H 7618 – are the only two legislators appointed to it. He suggests they have a vested interest in promoting policies that boost Rhode Island’s logging industry.

The heated rhetoric from both sides underscores the complexity of the issue. Prolonged drought, rising temperatures, and an increased frequency of extreme weather have turned Rhode Island’s forests into a tinderbox during summer months. The state has already experienced several major wildfires in the past year, including one that scorched 350 acres in Exeter.

In that context, calls for better forest management carry significant weight. But what, precisely, that should entail is where the battle lines have been drawn between environmental advocates and commercial interests. The forestry debate seems likely to intensify as the legislation works its way through the State House in the months ahead.

After this publication of this piece, we were sent this response attributed to Rep. Cotter:

I must address some misconceptions regarding the Forestry and Forest Parity Act (2024 H 7618) and related legislation. First and foremost, it’s crucial to note that similar measures to promote sustainable forest management, like the parity act, are already in place in a majority of other states, including most of New England. This underscores the widespread recognition of the that proper forest management is critical to responsible conservation.

Forest management involves planning, identifying problems specific to that forest, and outlining the steps necessary to bring that forest back to health. Just like in a garden, where you may plant three seeds in a single hole and later thin seedlings so one healthy plant can thrive, forests benefit from judicious thinning. A well-maintained forest sequesters more carbon than one that is 25% dead trees.

But it should go without saying that clear-cutting is off the table as an allowable activity under this bill. The legislation is specifically designed, through the inclusion of income limits, to prevent exploitation of tax breaks by large commercial logging operations while supporting smaller, sustainable forestry practices. The protection applies to forest landowners with forest management plans.

The urgency of enacting comprehensive forest management policies after so many years of inattention by our state cannot be overstated, especially in light of recent developments. In 2023, Rhode Island experienced its largest forest fire since the 1950s, highlighting the critical need for proactive measures to mitigate wildfire risks, especially in rural towns like mine that have areas of dense forestation and rely on (well-trained) volunteer firefighters. Additionally, the devastating impact of the spongy moth epidemic, which has led to the death of 25% of Rhode Island’s trees, underscores the pressing need for action.

Moreover, it’s important to recognize the challenges faced by the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). With budget constraints and staff cuts — its forestry staff has been slashed 75% since 1990 — DEM operates with very limited resources, hindering its ability to engage in proactive forest management. Currently, DEM is only able to address issues in a mere 1% of Rhode Island’s forests, leaving the majority of our woodlands vulnerable to threats.

In light of these challenges, the legislation I am championing, including the allocation of funds for forest and habitat management and the addition of new staff positions to DEM’s Division of Forestry, is aimed at bolstering our state’s capacity to address these critical issues.

By working collaboratively with experts and stakeholders, we can develop comprehensive and sustainable forest management strategies that safeguard both our environment and our economy. These additional funds will complement the efforts outlined in the Forestry and Forest Parity Act, providing crucial support for various aspects of environmental stewardship. Furthermore, the allocation of $3 million specifically for forest management will bolster our capacity to address wildfire risks and combat threats such as the spongy moth epidemic.

It’s imperative that we move forward with these measures to ensure the long-term health and resilience of Rhode Island’s forests. The Forestry and Forest Parity Act, along with complementary legislation, represents a balanced approach to addressing the complex challenges facing our state’s woodlands, and I am committed to advocating for their passage for the benefit of all Rhode Islanders.

I am proud to chair the forest management commission and bring some of our rural issues to the Capitol Hill, and it is astounding that a single individual with an ax to grind (if you’ll excuse the expression) about well-established forestry best practices would be given amplification for his completely false, baseless and unsubstantiated accusations that I have some “vested interest” in promoting, of all things, the logging industry and the destruction of forested lands for solar arrays or residential development. Fighting against deforestation for solar arrays was one of the very issues I ran for office, and one of the first bills I sponsored in the House was aimed at stopping the practice.

In addition to advocating for comprehensive forest management policies, I am also championing significant investments through the Green Bond fund to further enhance environmental conservation efforts across Rhode Island. This includes allocating $16 million for the Green Bond, with specific allocations of $5 million for farms, $5 million for open space preservation, $3 million for local open space initiatives and $3 million for forest management. 

By leveraging these resources effectively, we can ensure the protection of Rhode Island’s natural landscapes, promote sustainable agriculture, and enhance recreational opportunities for our residents. These investments are essential for preserving our state’s environmental heritage and ensuring a vibrant and resilient future for generations to come.