Rhode Island’s Forests at Risk: When Conservation Laws Are Ignored

Despite legislation aimed at preserving Rhode Island’s pristine forests, the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has consistently overlooked its duty. For decades, the state’s natural ecology has been compromised, with logging interests overshadowing conservation efforts. Dive into the intricate web of policies, politics, and the urgent call for change.

Rhode Island News: Rhode Island’s Forests at Risk: When Conservation Laws Are Ignored

August 15, 2023, 12:57 pm

By Nathan Cornell

We Must Stop the Destruction of Rhode Island’s Last Wild Forests

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has been harming the state’s natural ecology for decades.

In 1993, the Natural Areas Protection Act of 1993 RIGL 42-122 was passed into law, and required DEM to create Natural Area Preserves to protect Rhode Island’s most environmentally sensitive areas in their natural state. These areas would include rare forest ecosystems and habitats where endangered species live such as Natural Heritage Areas and Old Growth Forests. However, for the past 30 years, DEM has never designated even one Natural Area Preserve. Also, none of the Natural Heritage Areas identified by the old Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program are protected either.

1990s Law Designed to Build Natural Area Preserves Instead Created a Mystery ecoRINews


DEM continues to ignore the Natural Areas Protection Act of 1993. The reason is because protecting forests in their natural state would prevent DEM from managing the forest by destructive logging, which is the only management “technique” that DEM uses! Logging our public forests profits the timber industry and a small number of hunters but harms the interests of the rest of Rhode Island’s citizens.

In 2007, DEM defunded the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program, which was the only state entity devoted to protecting native biodiversity and rare habitats. So, for the past 16 years, there has been no Natural Heritage Program in Rhode Island or anything resembling it in the state government. Meanwhile, DEM continues giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Wildlife Management Institute, a non- profit that sounds like an environmental protection group, but is actually a hunter’s group. This group promotes clearcutting of forests for unnatural early successional habitat because they claim the species that hunters target, such as the New England Cottontail, Ruffed Grouse, and the American Woodcock, thrive in recently clearcut forest areas. In FY 2023, DEM gave $1,223,120.44 to the Wildlife Management Institute which promotes forest clearcutting.

Transparency Portal (ri.gov)


In 2022 and 2023, DEM opposed the Old Growth Forest Preservation Act 2022 (H7066) and the Old Growth Forest Protection Act 2023 (H5344) which would have required DEM to protect Old Growth Forests which have a high degree of native biodiversity. Native biodiversity are wild native species that have always lived in natural Rhode Island habitats. These species of beautiful plants and animals such as the endangered Cerulean Warbler and the Wood Thrush are at risk because no state-owned forests are currently protected from logging. That is why it is so important to protect these remaining Old Growth Forests, because of the rare species they protect. The latter bill would also have required DEM to designate a minimum number of Natural Area Preserves in 2023 to finally get the Natural Areas Preserve system established. DEM claimed both bills would prevent them from managing their land, by managing they mean destructive logging of these publicly owned natural forests in order to enrich the timber industry.



In 2022, DEM combined the Division of Agriculture and Division of Forest Environment into one Division, the Division of Agriculture and Forest Environment. This is in accordance with the old European based belief that forests are a crop and should be shaped by humans through logging. However, before the colonial period, most of Rhode Island’s forests were wild, unmanaged by humans, and before the Native Americans arrived, all the forests were wild. The original wild forests contained far more biodiversity because they were shaped by nature rather than by humans. There are rare, wild species of plants and animals in Rhode Island today that need natural wild forests, not managed woodlands (continually logged tree farms), to survive. Otherwise, the Old Growth Forests that dominated Rhode Island’s pre- colonial landscape, and the species that depended on them, will be entirely destroyed in Rhode Island, and will never return. We just have to look at western Europe today where native forests are rare and have been largely replaced by non-native tree plantations due to archaic logging practices which are still being widely used today in the U.S., including Rhode Island.

RhodeIsland Agriculture | RhodeIsland Department of Environmental Management

All these actions and inactions by DEM show how they have done the opposite of protecting our state’s natural ecology.

DEM never created the Natural Area Preserves in accordance with the Natural Areas Protection Act of 1993 RIGL 42-122. Instead, DEM has spent the last three decades helping the timber industry and a small group of hunters by wiping out the last vestiges of wild nature in our state.

DEM defunded the Natural Heritage Program while continuing to fund programs that promote early successional habitat – which is clearcutting the wooded area – that damage mature and Old Growth natural forests, and which helps the timber industry and hunter groups despite it not being reflective of the state’s natural history.

DEM pays taxpayer money to logging companies to log our state forests releasing the carbon stored in the trees into the atmosphere as air pollution, which contributes to Climate Change. Therefore, DEM, a state agency, is violating the 2021 Act on Climate which requires net zero carbon emissions by 2050.


DEM also doesn’t understand the state’s natural ecology or wildfire history and does not believe in unmanaged wild natural forests which are needed for native biodiversity, wildfire resistance, and Climate Change resilience. DEM prioritizes what it believes to be the state’s economic and recreational interests solely through logging. Most logging, and especially clearcuts, harms the state’s economic interests by degrading water and soil quality, by eliminating biodiversity, by destroying scenic beauty and recreational value, and by adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A small number of Rhode Islanders benefit economically from logging or hunting on state lands. The vast majority of Rhode Islanders want to recreate in natural forest areas, not clearcuts. Currently, Rhode Islanders have to travel to other states, such as New York’s Adirondacks and Catskills, to enjoy the natural beauty of protected public wild forests.


Just this year, a number of groups including Harvard Forest released a report on Wildlands in New England which are areas with the highest levels of protection. The criterion for Wildlands is that they remain unlogged and are left alone without any significant human interference. The report found Rhode Island had the least number of Wildlands in all of New England, as well as being the only state in New England to have no Wildlands on public land.

Study:NewEngland Needs to Conserve More Wildlands ecoRI News

Wildlands in New England Report Released NortheastWildernessTrust(newildernesstrust.org)


Currently, Rhode Island has zero acres of protected natural areas on state lands. That is why we need a separate Natural Heritage Program that would prioritize natural ecology first and foremost, and the economic and recreational benefits of natural areas, which are much greater than logged areas. A Natural Heritage Program that would allow scientists to do the work necessary to protect the state’s natural ecology without political pressure from DEM. We also need to create the Natural Areas Preserve system to finally protect the state’s Natural Heritage Areas so rare and endangered species are no longer threatened by state sanctioned logging.


What is strange is that no statewide environmental group seems the least bit concerned that all state forests are open to logging including the Natural Heritage Areas and have taken no steps in the past 30 years to protect these areas except for the Old Growth Tree Society.

Instead, this year, the Rhode Island Forest Conservation Commission and the 2022-2023 President of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island supported a bill, H5784, which would have expanded the timber industry in Rhode Island.

Microsoft Word– 001650A002.docx (rilegislature.gov)


The Timber Industry’s Takeover of Rhode Island’s Environmental Movement ecoRINews

DEM, the Rhode Island Land Trust Council, and the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, are all represented on the Rhode Island Forest Conservation Commission. The RI Forest Conservation Commission was created on the urging of the Rhode Island Woodland Partnership which all the above groups are represented on as well as the Rhode Island Resource Conservation and Development Areas Council, the Rhode Island Forest Conservators Organization (RIFCO), The Northern Rhode Island Conservation District, the Rhode Island Association of Conservation Districts, The Nature Conservancy, the Rhode Island Tree Council, the Rhode Island Audubon Society, the University of Rhode Island (URI), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Save the Bay, etc.

One of the main purposes of the Rhode Island Woodland Partnership (RIWP), and the reason why it was established in the first place, is to expand the timber industry in Rhode Island as is described in their 2023-2025 Strategic Plan:

“The RIWP will identify barriers and improve opportunities for forest-related businesses.

  • Activity: Ensure forest-related industries have economic parity with agriculture to ensure that woods operators have the same benefits as farmers.
  • Resources: Farm, Forest & Open Space current use tax law, state laws that pertain to agricultural benefits, Economic Impact of RI’s Forestry and Wood Products Sector report, RI Wood Operators Organization
  • Who – Lead: RIWP members, General Assembly
  • Who – Support: RIWP members
  • Activity: Prioritize the marketing and promotion of local forest products.
  • Resources: PR intern, RIWP Coordinator, RI Wood Operators Organization
  • Who – Lead: RC&D, URI, DEM-DAFE
  • Who – Support: RIWP members.”


The meetings for the Rhode Island Woodland Partnership are posted on the rinaturalhistory YouTube page which is run by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, one of the RI Woodland Partnership’s biggest supporters whose members are active participants in their meetings.

RIFCO Demo Woodlot Tour: RI Woodland Partnership December 2021 Meeting YouTube

Expanding the timber industry also happens to be the main purpose of the Rhode Island Forest Conservation Commission.

In the legislation for the 2021 RI Forest Conservation Act, it says,

“(c) Therefore, the general assembly establishes a forest conservation commission to be coordinated and staffed by the department of environmental management to implement the following objectives:…

4) Help to increase and create new markets for Rhode Island forest products to store carbon long-term and create new jobs;

(5) Assess impediments to the expansion of the Rhode Island forest products industry and recommend changes to remove impediments;…”


The Rhode Island Forest Conservation Commission has nothing to do with conservation and this shows as H5784, the bill to INCREASE THE DESTRUCTION of forests in Rhode Island, not conserve them, was the only bill the RI Forest Conservation Commission supported in 2023.

Sadly, not one of the ‘environmental’ groups mentioned above supported this year’s or last year’s Old Growth Forest Bills. DEM and the RI Forest Conservation Commission were the two main groups which prevented these bills from being passed.

However, if any environmental groups would like to support the initiative to protect Rhode Island’s Wildlands in their natural state and reinstitute the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program, the Old Growth Tree Society would be happy to work with those groups.


The only ones who can save Rhode Island’s natural forests and wild areas so something of the original Rhode Island is left for future generations are the citizens of Rhode Island, citizens who love nature, care about their children, and want to make Rhode Island naturally more beautiful and a better place to live by protecting natural areas, not destroying them. These citizens need to tell their state representatives and senators to pass, and the governor to sign into law the Old Growth Forest Protection Act, which will prohibit logging in Old Growth Forests, require environmental reviews before logging operations on public land, designate all state-owned Natural Heritage Areas as Natural Area Preserves, and bring back the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program as a new and separate state agency.

If you want to help, please contact the Old Growth Tree Society at [email protected].


It is time Rhode Island’s environmental community start supporting laws that protect the environment instead of enriching the timber industry.