DEM: Report offers further evidence that RI forests are ecological and economic engines

A project of the RI Tree Council and Forest Conservation Advisory Committee, The Value of Rhode Island Forests report spotlights the benefits provided by forestlands and recommends strategies to encourage conservation

Photo credit // Audubon Society of Rhode Island

The following was written by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

Rhode Island’s 386,373 acres of forest protect drinking water, filter air, mitigate climate change, provide opportunities for outdoor recreation, promote health, harbor wildlife, and create economic value. Our forests improve air quality, sequester carbon, and help manage stormwater runoff. They provide a “sense of place” to rural communities and offer quiet solitude from a culture obsessed with screens and social media.

If it sounds like forests are irreplaceable habitats without which Rhode Island would be a far lesser place, that is the certain conclusion of a study produced by the RI Tree Council and the RI Forest Conservation Advisory Committee. Titled The Value of Rhode Island Forests, the 138-page report outlines the benefits provided by forestland and recommends a suite of potential strategies to encourage conservation. It was funded through the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) with a grant from the US Forest Service.

“DEM is grateful to the Rhode Island Forest Conservation Advisory Committee and the Rhode Island Tree Council for completing The Value of Rhode Island Forests report,” said DEM Director Janet Coit. “This report will be essential in guiding DEM as we work with stakeholders to update Rhode Island’s Forest Action Plan and develop and implement new policies to conserve our state’s vital forestland. Conserving our state’s forests and the multitude of benefits that they provide, from clean water and air to wildlife habitat and recreation, is part of DEM’s core mission. While Rhode Island is known as the Ocean State, our forested areas are also integral to our identity and quality of life.”

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DEM’s Division of Forest Environment works across the state with property owners along with rural and urban communities on a wide range of forestry topics including forest heath, forest fire prevention, community tree planting, and private forest land management to maximize the positive benefits forests bring to all Rhode Islanders. The Division also manages 40,000 acres of state-owned rural forestland including the Arcadia and George Washington Management Areas, popular venues for outdoor recreation. Noting that DEM is a steward of forest-based recreation, Director Coit said she is excited that Governor Raimondo’s fiscal year 2021 proposed budget includes a $64 million Beach, Clean Water, and Green Bond that would provide $3 million to conserve forested land and farmland.

“Forests perform many ecological services and are core to our efforts to preserve biodiversity and increase resiliency to climate change,” said Director Coit. She pointed out that through its work with the U.S. Climate Alliance, DEM is developing guidelines to assist urban communities with reforestation efforts such as community tree planting programs that enhance human health benefits and combat the effects of climate change by reducing stormwater pollution.

The report recommends numerous strategies for promoting forest conservation in Rhode Island, such as creating dedicated funding sources, incorporating smart growth principles into land use planning and permitting, supporting market-based incentives, and actively managing rural and urban forestland to maximize forest value.

Healthy forests are essential to public health and well-being and an important part of the state’s natural infrastructure. From providing us with food to eat, paper for the books we read, and materials from which we build our homes and other products, our forests have tremendous environmental, economic, and cultural benefits:

Forests clean the AIR and WATER. 80% of Rhode Islanders rely on surface reservoirs surrounded by largely forested watersheds for drinking water.

Forests remove more than 13,800 tons of hazardous air pollutants in Rhode Island every year, providing more than $30 million annually in POLLUTION REMOVAL BENEFITS.

Forests ABSORB and STORE CARBON to fight climate change. Rhode Island forests absorb about 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. They store an estimated 26.7 million metric tons of carbon. Forests help Rhode Island communities adapt to a changing climate by protecting us from extreme weather.

Forests support HEALTHY PEOPLE. Trees support healthy communities by countering the urban heat island effect, mitigating flooding dangers, and reducing energy bills. Access to green space has been shown to improve mental health. Rhode Island’s forests continue to be used by indigenous people as places to gather resources used for food, medicine, and culturally-significant ceremonies. Forests provide a “sense of place” to rural Rhode Island communities.

Forests allow WILDLIFE to thrive. Core forests larger than 250 acres are considered critical to support more than 450 species of greatest conservation need in Rhode Island. The RI Wildlife Action Plan identified “Conservation Opportunity Areas,” which include core forests that are important to people and wildlife.

Forests are an ECONOMIC ENGINE. More than 500 firms in the forestry and wood products sector generated a total economic impact of $715 million and 4,800 jobs in Rhode Island in 2016. An estimated 503,000 people participating in wildlife-related recreation each year bring $348 million to the state’s economy through fishing, hunting, and wildlife watching.

More than 50 percent of Rhode Island is forested, with most forest land owned by private citizens who face increased pressure to develop it for other uses. The most common forest health threats are from development or through fragmentation of large forested parcels into smaller parcels, making sustainable forest management difficult. Rhode Island has lost nearly 2,000 acres of critically important core forestland – tracts of forested land of at least 250 acres – between 2011 and 2018. The Value of Rhode Island Forests report makes clear that conserving Rhode Island’s forests is essential to preserving the values forests provide to our communities.

For more information on DEM programs and initiatives, visit www.dem.ri.gov. Follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RhodeIslandDEM or on Twitter (@RhodeIslandDEM) for timely updates.