School children spread mulch on a new planting in Woonsocket at a 2019 Arbor Day event.

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by Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RI DEM)

Today marks the 133rd anniversary of Arbor Day in Rhode Island, and the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is encouraging residents to connect with nature and appreciate Rhode Island’s bounty of trees. Trees play an important role in cooling streets and homes, filtering air, and sequestering carbon.

“Even though we’re observing Arbor Day close to home this year in our backyards and neighborhoods, it’s easy to see what a vital role trees play in supporting quality of life, controlling stormwater runoff, and beautifying our communities,” said DEM Director Janet Coit. “Spring is a gorgeous time of year and whether you live in an urban area or a rural neighborhood, you don’t need to venture very far to see a beautiful flowering cherry, tulip, or dogwood tree in full bloom. My heart goes out to all those who are confronting loss and suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For me, the beauty of trees and nature offers solace and comfort in difficult times.”

Each year, Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday of April to mark the importance of trees to our environment, culture, and economy. The first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska in 1872 with more than one million tree plantings. Rhode Island began celebrating the day in 1887. In addition to Arbor Day, Rhode Island is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this week and urging Rhode Islanders to take action to confront climate change and live more sustainably.

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“Climate change is the major environmental issue of our time, and we must press forward and do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote the resilience of our communities,” said Director Coit. “Simple actions like planting a tree in the right place improves air quality and is a tangible way for residents to stand up to climate change.”

The state is partnering with American Forests on the Urban Forests for Climate & Health Initiative. As part of this effort, which stems from DEM’s work with the US Climate Alliance, Rhode Island will be the first state to pilot a suite of innovative technical, policy, and financing tools that aim to unlock the full potential for urban forests to slow climate change and improve public health. The project’s equity-based approach will bring trees to Rhode Islanders who need them most, such as low-income families without access to air conditioning and children and elderly populations who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is supporting this important work and elevating Rhode Island as a leader in urban forestry.

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

“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,” said Coit. “While Rhode Island is known as the Ocean State, our forested areas also are integral to our identity and quality of life.”

DEM’s Division of Forest Environment works across the state with property owners and 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 that 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.

“Forests perform many ecological services and are core to our efforts to preserve biodiversity and increase resiliency to climate change,” said Coit. She noted that through its work with the US 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.

A study produced by the RI Tree Council and the RI Forest Conservation Advisory Committee titled The Value of Rhode Island Forests outlines the benefits provided by forestland and recommends a suite of potential strategies to encourage conservation. Funded through DEM with a grant from the US Forest Service, the report will be essential in guiding DEM as it works with stakeholders to update Rhode Island’s Forest Action Plan and develop and implement new policies to conserve our state’s vital forestland.

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 form 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” including core forests as 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 % 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.

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