Letter: Opportunity exists to protect Burrillville’s ecosystem services

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If projections of future growth are accurate for northwestern Rhode Island, Burrillville will lose its rural character and join the southeastern New England suburban core that includes southeastern New Hampshire, Boston, Worcester and all of Rhode Island. We are not talking about a hundred years from now…think of the year 2050. The current review of Burrillville’s Town Charter is a rare opportunity to put into place protections for the natural ecological systems that may stave off this projection. 

Ecosystem services will be discussed during the Burrillville Town Charter Review Committee meeting, which takes place on Tuesday, January 25 starting at 7 p.m. at the Town Council Chambers in the Town Building at 105 Harrisville Main St. Or join in via Zoom with Meeting ID: 879 9977 9825 and Password: 508264.

Placing the term “ecosystem services” within the Town Charter makes sense as our town is increasingly being developed.

Ecosystem services is not a new concept. Relationships between deforestation and water supply were documented by Plato as early as 400 BCE. Fast forward to today and the term has become recognized as growing more important as pressures increase on our rivers, lakes, forests and soils. Climate change, pollution, over-exploitation, and land-use change are some of the drivers of ecosystem loss, as well as resource challenges associated with globalization and urbanization. A textbook definition of ”ecosystem services” is commonly defined as benefits people obtain from nature. If you have a well for clean drinking water, or depend on bees and insects to help pollinate your flowers and vegetable garden, or you love working in your compost rich soil, or you enjoy watching the cycle of life in your neighborhood forest, you know well what ecosystem services are all about. 

In a broader context, ecosystem services can be catalogued in four different, but connected, groups:

1. Provisioning Services or the provision of food, fresh water, fuel, fiber, and other goods;

2. Regulating Services such as climate, water, and disease regulation as well as pollination;

3. Supporting Services such as soil formation and nutrient cycling or composting; and

4. Cultural Services such as educational, aesthetic, and cultural heritage values as well as recreation, tourism, and other economic values.

Ecosystem services is the only phrase that captures nature’s benefits directly to people. 

In its current form though, Burrillville’s Town Charter pays little homage to the environment. The only reference to the environment in the Town Charter in its current form, is in subdivision by planning and zoning, and duties of the Town Manager which, under these “duties” the Town Manager’s position lumps the “care and preservation of all town property” together with “equipment.” But nowhere are the words environment, climate change, or even land preservation mentioned within the users guide as to how the town operates.

Some have suggested using the term “natures benefits,” or the “natural world.”

“Ecosystem services is stronger and perhaps a better fit for the purposes of local government, planning and zoning,” says Ken Payne, former executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns from 1977 to 1986, former senior policy advisor to the Rhode Island Senate and director of the Rhode Island Senate Policy Office  from 1997 to 2007. “While ‘environment,’ is a broader and more commonly used term, environmental management functions are assigned by statute to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The ecosystem services of woodlands for example fall nicely within the scope of things which towns have an interest in protecting to secure public health and welfare,” writes Payne.

The review of the Town Charter thus has a golden opportunity to update how the town moves within the context of today’s environment. Many of us, me included, moved here and continue to live here because of the natural world around us. From iconic properties such as Sweet’s Hill to travels along Douglas Pike, and hikes in Pulaski, Black Hut and George Washington, most of us enjoy the stone walls, the glacially formed pools and lakes and old growth forests that we see every day. We would think as demonstrably tragic if all this were lost and not protected in some fashion. 

So what would change if ecosystem services were added into the Town Charter? Within the Town Charter of today under Article XII, Section 12.04., one of the responsibilities of the Department of Planning and Development is “…to undertake such other work as may be assigned by the Town Council in connection with the physical growth and development of the town as affecting the health, safety, morals and general welfare of the people and economy and efficiency of community life.” With the addition of ecosystem services, that same Article XII, Section 12.04. would read, in part, “…responsible to undertake such other work as may be assigned by the Town Council in connection with the physical growth and development of the Town as affecting the health, safety, morals, ecosystem services and general welfare of the people and economy and efficiency of community life.”

That addition that would help move the town of Burrillville, and the Burrillville Department of Planning and Development to have a conversation about where to place development, how best to use some of the existing tools they have to protect the natural world, to bring in experts to talk about how best to maintain clean drinking water and save pollinator habitat, to make sure that the economy, tourism, recreation, and our health, safety and morals are secure, and to make certain that finally, the environment takes its rightful place within our Town Charter.

Paul A. Roselli

Paul Roselli is president of the Burrillville Land Trust, a private non-profit, all volunteer 502(c)(3) in the town of Burrillville. The Land Trust’s mission is to preserve and protect the rural character of the town of Burrillville through education, advocacy and acquisition. The land trust has been around since 2000 and currently owns about 229 acres in Burrillville.

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