Cutting Red Tape to Restore Nature

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I began my journey through a red tape jungle about 20 years ago, on a quest to clean up a pond and then to help out some toads. Here’s where my regulatory travails took me…

There has always been a segment of the US population that felt any restraint on the use of land was communism. As the world fills up and becomes more polluted, and as our ecosystems crash, the little bit of economic logic that justified for unrestrained damage to the environment made hundreds of years no longer makes any sense.

Unfortunately the attacks on regulations designed to protect water supplies, human health and communities has only ratcheted up in recent years and become an article of faith for those claiming to represent the business community. Of course evidence that protecting the environment and human health harms the economy is extremely difficult to find – all the evidence points toward the economic benefits of protecting ecosystems and humans from various forms of harm. Many members of the business community have figured out that ecosystem health is good for business and life, and stand up for protections. But still the attacks continue.

The two industries that most desire exemptions from the Clean Water Act are the real estate and the oil and gas industries. In RI, we do not drill for oil, or at least we are not currently doing it, so the real driver of the anti-regulatory fervor is the real estate industry, defined very widely. The more we mess with wetlands and rivers, the worse the problems become, yet people want to live near the water. To feed that desire, we encroach ever more on the water, exacerbating the problems, then sending them downstream, often as toxic floods.

We all want the regulations protecting wetlands to actually protect the water quality. And we want them to be clear and easily navigated, but they are not quite like that. The political tensions between those who pursue profit with complete disregard for the community and those seeking to protect communities and ecosystems produce rules that are political hash, and they have been influenced most by what can be made to work for the real estate industries.

Therefore, those rules facilitate a death by a thousand cuts for wetlands, as long as engineers and designers can hand in pretty pictures that say no damage will be done (except here, here and here) They can be exceedingly negligent when it comes to restoring the health of ecosystems. Sometimes, in an effort to reduce political pressure, the rules become rigid beyond reason, channeling all applications into a very narrow slot so they can be processed with machine-like precision. What happens then is a near complete reliance on the practices of the real estate industry, including what types of drawings are required. This machine-like approach puts large and expensive hurdles in the way of community groups that wish to do restorations – because our budgets do not stretch to cover the fancy pictures when we have projects to do with hand tools.

About 20 years ago I decided to start planting trees on a vacant lot covered with invasive weeds near the Moshassuck River in Providence. I was told I needed a permit, and all of the fancy drawings that would be required in order to apply. They did not tell me that I also needed to own the land or have the owner sign off on it to get a permit, something that was impossible, considering it was a squat for restoration with a wink and a nod from the owner who knew they would never be able to build on the site. But I went up the chain of command, and the director of the DEM at that time gave me a waiver, and started the process by which planting trees became something you could do by rule instead of having to apply for a permit. I ended up planting 90 trees over the years and have created a forest that suppressed the invasive weeds.

Recently I have been experiencing something a bit more complicated and am hearing tales of similar problems. Non-profits seeking to protect and restore the natural world by doing a very small hand-tool construction project that would enhance the environment are being asked to jump through the hoops designed to protect projects from doing damage to wetlands, not restoring them. The tales I hear are of land trusts having a difficult time getting permission to put in footpaths so people can see the preserved land.

I study a small wetland in Providence’s North Burial Ground, and over the years discovered that it is the only breeding population of Fowler’s Toads in the city. The pond is silting in rapidly; some erosion off a dirt track is washing in at a rapid rate, and threatens to make the habitat unsuitable for toads. The simple thing to do is deepen the pool a few inches in the center and remove a section of the cattails that are smothering the pond – the kind of thing we can do in a day with 10 people with shovels.

Based on what I have learned of the rainwater pool after years of study, I talked with the City of Providence and we both figured it was simply routine maintenance to remove the silt and cattails. But since we wanted to establish some precedence so that other community groups could also do these kind of restorations with minimal paperwork, I went to talk to the Wetland Restoration Team at RIDEM. I was hoping they would just okay it as maintenance, but they decided the project needed a permit.

I started talking to engineering firms and they really could not imagine how to do the project even though I presented a very clear picture of what to do and how to do it. Eventually I just made the maps and wrote the report myself. It was rejected because the map did not have proper GPS notation on it; it was simply a copy of the city’s map of the site blown up so that more details could be shown. Eventually an architect who works on green infrastructure drew the two maps the DEM demanded at a cost well beyond what all the rest of the project will cost. And I got a permit. Six months later.

The real issue is that forcing neighborhood scale restoration projects to spend the money and go through a process focused on minimizing damage, not actual restoration of ecosystem health, is oppressive and a waste of very scarce neighborhood resources. There needs to be a new system, one designed to aid and assist restorations, rather than an adversarial process seeking to restrict damage.

DEM already has a Watershed Restoration Team. If they could be repurposed to work with those seeking to restore, using their expertise to advise and suggest, and then let the community groups minimize paperwork or apply with photos instead of maps, that might be a very good start. We already have a similar rule change in RI with new rules on compost facilities, where one simply registers the smallest sites, needs a more detailed plan for the next size up, and needs to meet the same requirements as any other type of facility for the largest operations. And this year there are applicants for medium-sized sites for the first time ever.

I end on a positive note. A recent conversation with RIDEM director Janet Coit touched upon this topic and she understands the issue and is open to exploring it with the advocates.

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