2023 was a busy year for the Rhode Island BHA team – we made progress on several key issues, and notched a couple significant wins too. Below you’ll find updates on our work at the Rhode Island General Assembly and other state agencies from 2023
Issue: Shoreline Access
After years of advocacy led by BHA and others, RI’s General Assembly overhauled the state’s shoreline access law by passing bills H5174A & S417A near the end of the 2023 legislative session, correcting a flawed RI Supreme Court decision from 1982. Under the new law, the public is allowed to exercise “shoreline privileges” defined by RI’s Constitution up to a boundary 10 feet inland of highest reach of the most recent tide.
Issue: Prohibiting Captive Hunting & Wildlife Importation
Working to prohibit captive hunting – and more specifically the importation of captive wildlife like deer that could carry chronic wasting disease and invasive feral pigs – was a top legislative priority for BHA’s RI Team going into 2023, and has been an ongoing effort since 2019. During the 2023 legislative session the RI team supported H5864 & S607, introduced by Rep. Scott Slater and Sen. Matt LaMountain respectively.
After years of advocacy, H7439 was unanimously approved by the RI House Environment and Natural Resources Committee in May and passed in the RI House by a unanimous vote in June. Ultimately, the Senate did not hold a committee vote on either bill. Recent CWD outbreaks linked to captive hunting facilities and CWD detections in new areas around the country highlight the need for continued effort on this issue.
Issue: Old Growth Forests
For several years BHA’s Rhode Island team has opposed misguided legislative efforts that sought to restrict the tools used by the state and municipalities to achieve management goals on lands that they own with the goal of “protecting” old growth forests. Going in to 2023, continuing to defeat these proposals was a top priority for BHA’s RI Team.
Only one “old growth forest protection act” bill was introduced during the 2023 legislative session, and it failed to address the many concerns raised during previous iterations. Thankfully, the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee declined to advance the bill, and no companion was introduced in the RI Senate.
BHA’s RI Team will continue to monitor this issue moving forward, although it appears to have lost momentum heading into 2024.
Issue: CRMC Reorganization
For several years BHA’s Rhode Island team has been involved in legislative conversations about restructuring the statutory authority assigned to RI’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), which balances environmental protection and development of the state’s coastal zone in accordance with the Federal Coastal Zone Management Act. During the 2023 legislative session at least eight bills were published that sought to reform/restructure some or all of the authority currently assigned to CRMC.
While many of the bills proposed incremental changes, the RI Team chose to only support H6034 & S772, which proposed a complete overhaul of the agency.
Unfortunately, neither of the bills supported by BHA were scheduled for a vote in their respective committees during the 2023 legislative session.
One notable outcome of the 2023 session was the appointment and confirmation of a hearing officer to assist with contested permitting and enforcement cases under CRMC’s jurisdiction. While RI’s General Assembly passed a law several decades ago requiring the Governor to appoint two CRMC hearing officers no appointments were made until 2023, when the RI House pressured the current administration by passing a bill that would have allowed CRMC’s Executive Director to hire hearing officers when the Governor failed to do so in a timely manner.
Issue: Conservation Restrictions on Real Property
During the 2023 Legislative Session BHA’s RI Team supported legislation that sought to further protect conservation restrictions in favor of the grants awarded. H5914 & S418, introduced by Rep. Bob Craven & Sen. Louis DiPalma, respectively, proposed amendments to RI’s property laws to ensure that when conservation or preservation restrictions are challenged that they would be liberally construed. In Rhode Island, nearly 30,000 acres of land are protected by state-held conservation restrictions (easements), and countless additional acres are protected by conservation/preservation restrictions held by other entities, such as municipalities and land trusts.
S418 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in April and passed the full Senate unanimously in May, and H5914 passed the House Judiciary Committee in April and passed the full House unanimously in May. After passing both Chambers, Governor Dan McKee signed H5914 & S418 into law on May 18th, 2023.
Issue: Rights-of-Way Signage
During the 2023 legislative session BHA’s RI Team supported legislation that sought to address misleading signage at shoreline access locations. H5700 & S0889, introduced by Rep. Terri Cortvriend & Sen. Victoria Gu, proposed new language that would added “signage that deters the public” to the current law prohibiting the blockage or obstruction of public rights of way.
In recent years the occurrence of confusing or outright malicious signage on RI’s shoreline intended to deter access has become a frequent occurrence. Neither bill advanced out of its respective committee during the 2023 legislative session.
In 2021, BHA’s RI Team opposed a proposal to establish an aquaculture operation in close proximity to Sapowet Marsh WMA in Tiverton. During the 2023 Legislative Session, the RI Team supported H5037 & S198, introduced by Rep. Jay Edwards and Sen. Louis DiPalma respectively, which sought to resolve the issue by establishing a 2-year pilot program prohibiting the siting of new aquaculture operations within 1000’ from shore along the Sakonnet River. Despite the Sapowet aquaculture application pending on CRMC’s docket for approximately 3 years, the politically appointed Council has yet to issue a ruling on it.
Unfortunately, neither bill advanced out of its respective committee, and since the conclusion of the legislative session the Sapowet application has been referred to CRMC’s hearing officer as a ‘contested case’, ensuring that there are likely to be months or years of additional regulatory hearings before a conclusion is reached.
Issue: Trade in Animal Fur
For several years BHA’s RI Team has opposed legislative proposals that seek to prohibit the sale of fur products in the state. During the 2023 legislative session bills H5258 & S746, introduced by Rep. Katherine Kazarian and Sen. Pamela Lauria, essentially mirrored previous efforts. While the bills’ focus appears to primarily relate to agricultural fur farms, which are largely outside of BHA’s concern, each would affect the sale of furs obtained through legal, regulated trapping both in RI and elsewhere. Thankfully, neither bill advanced out of its respective committee.
Issue: Liability on Public Lands
During the 2023 legislative session BHA’s RI Team opposed a House bill that sought to remove state and municipally owned properties from liability protection under RI’s recreational use statute. Under current property law if the public is given free access to land for recreational purposes, whether publicly or privately owned, then the landowner is generally not liable for injuries that occur on the premises unless known hazardous conditions are willfully or maliciously neglected. Similar efforts to remove recreational use liability protection for state and municipally owned lands were launched in 2022, 2019 and earlier, and thankfully none have advanced from their respective committees.
Issue: Furbearing Animals
During the 2023 legislative session BHA’s RI Team supported H5742 & S624, which sought to assign management responsibility over certain furbearing species, such as black bears, porcupines, and striped skunks, to the RI’s Department of Environmental Management. Additionally, the bills proposed corrections to outdated language in RI’s General Laws defining various species of weasels, otters, and squirrels.
Unfortunately, neither bill advanced out of its respective committee.
Issue: Sapowet Marsh Aquaculture Permitting
Back in 2021 BHA’s RI Team opposed an application to RI’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) to establish an oyster farm in close proximity to Sapowet Marsh WMA, a popular hunting/fishing site in Tiverton. In May of 2023 RI’s Coastal Resources Management Council re-noticed application 2020-04-037 for public input, and because none of the concerns that BHA raised several years earlier were addressed we re-objected to the application. Having several years to conduct analysis on the proposal, we also discovered that if approved the proposed aquaculture facility near Sapowet Marsh WMA would be the closest that CRMC had ever allowed an aquaculture facility to be developed near an existing state-managed public-access facility.
At a hearing in November CRMC ruled that the application was ‘contested’, and referred the matter to their newly appointed hearing officer. It remains unclear how or when proceedings before the hearing officer will materialize, because until recently CRMC has not had a hearing officer in spite of state legislation passed several decades ago requiring that two hearing officers be appointed.
Issue: Dutch Island Aquaculture Permitting
In early 2023 two applications were submitted to RI’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) to establish ~10 acre kelp farms in close proximity to Dutch Island, in Narragansett Bay’s west passage. Recognizing that the waters surrounding Dutch Island hold one of the most prominent mussel beds within Narragansett Bay, and subsequently are both prime wintering habitat for sea ducks and often utilized by waterfowl hunters, BHA’s RI Team expressed concerns during a preliminary determination hearing on applications 2023-02-078 & 2023-02-080 in April.
In our testimony, BHA called on regulators to deny applications unless environmental impacts in the area were better understood, or significant changes (i.e. relocation) were made by the applicants. One of the applicants moved the location of their application, and was subsequently granted a permit to grow kelp in October of 2023. The other applicant made minor alterations to the location and the application was circulated for public notice in early 2024.
Issue: Warren/Palmer River Bridge Permitting
In late 2023 BHA’s RI Team learned that RI’s Department of Transportation (RIDOT) was seeking a permit from RI’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) to reconstruct a bike path bridge spanning Warren’s Palmer River. Historically, the Palmer River bridge was a popular access point where anglers pursued striped bass and other species in tidal waters. Of concern to BHA, RIDOT’s proposal sought to reduce the width of the bridge and prohibit fishing because on the narrower span anglers might interfere with primary use of the bike path.
BHA’s testimony called on CRMC to require fishing access as a condition of granting RIDOT’s permit, citing regulations in CRMC’s Red Book that require applicants to provide “on-site access of a similar type and level to that which is being impacted”. During a meeting on October 24, 2023 CRMC members expressed similar concerns, and voted unanimously to continue discussions at a later date once RIDOT provides more information.
Issue: RI Hunting Regulations
Each year, the RI Department of Environmental Management’s Fish and Wildlife Division opens a regulatory process to set seasons dates, bag limits and make changes to the regulations that control hunting and trapping in Rhode Island.
During the 2023 regulatory process BHA commented on several points of the proposal, including the addition of Bristol town properties to F&W’s Deer Hunting Co-Op program, provided a mechanism to use certain state lands for mentored hunting programs, expanded shooting hours for dove hunting.
You can help New England BHA continue our work on behalf or hunters’ and anglers’ access to public lands, waters and wildlife by joining Backcountry Hunters and Anglers today!