During last year’s legislative session in Rhode Island the New England Chapter opposed a flurry of bills that sought to restrict the authority that the state and municipalities currently enjoy to manage lands that they own with the goal of “protecting” old growth forests.
Earlier this year a similar bill, H5344, was introduced in the RI House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the current bill fails to address many of the issues that were raised during last year’s hearings. Of note, it seeks to impose new hurdles to the acquisition and management of forests that might be brought into public ownership in the future – effectively making it more difficult and costly for the state and municipalities to protect forests through acquisition. Additionally, it raises concerns related to development pressures on Rhode Island’s forests as a state-wide issue but does little to address where those pressures are primarily focused, on privately owned lands, and instead seeks to impose restrictions on the managers of publicly-owned forests.
Practically speaking, forests that are owned and managed by the state are some of the least likely to be cleared for development, although the state’s Department of Environmental Management conducts forestry operations on state-owned lands from time to time in order to achieve specific management goals. These operations are guided by the best available science, and public input, and are outlined in expansive management plans such as RI’s Wildlife Action Plan, Forest Action Plan, and Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP). While the goals of these processes are different than the management objectives that proponents of H5344 might prioritize, the processes are sound and the General Assembly should not restricted the autonomy granted to the state and municipalities without a substantial reason, which has not been provided.
Additionally, the General Assembly passed legislation (§ 2-27) in 2021 to create a Forest Conservation Commission (FCC) to advise the legislature on issues like the ones being raised by bill proponents. It takes time complete the administrative process of appointing Commissioners and getting to work – but the FCC is meeting regularly and is well-positioned to examine broader forestry issues and dynamics in Rhode Island, including deforestation for development, on all lands within the state, and to provide recommendations on how the General Assembly might address them.
This Thursday, March 9th, the RI House Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hold a public hearing on H5344 at the Rise of the House (the hearing will start around 4:30PM). All members of the public are encouraged to participate, and can share verbal testimony in person at the hearing or submit written testimony following the Committee’s instructions.