Friday, June 8, 2018

Building a buzz in Rhode Island

When Environment Council of Rhode Island member Dave Brunetti mentioned at a meeting that he wanted to get the state to ban a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, Audubon’s director of policy, Meg Kerr, and her predecessor Eugenia Marks expressed their support and offered to help. Concerns about the decline of bees have made news around the world, and neonicotinoids have been implicated as one probable cause. Since pollinator protection is high on Audubon’s list of priorities, Kerr and Marks joined with Brunetti in speaking to legislators and meeting with beekeepers and other interested stakeholders about the issue.
The idea of a ban on neonicotinoids met with resistance from many in the farming and landscaping industries, however, so one legislator offered to convene what Kerr called “a listening workshop” to bring together experts and interested parties to share their perspectives. It was an emotionally charged meeting, and it soon became clear that there was little support for an immediate ban on the insecticides.
Instead, a compromise was reached and legislation was passed to establish a Pollinator Working Group under the RI Department of Environmental Management to investigate the many
issues surrounding pollinator health and habitat in Rhode Island. The Working Group includes scientists, farmers, landscapers, beekeepers and representatives of environmental groups, with Kerr and Shannon Brawley, executive director of the RI Nursery and Landscape Association, designated as “staff” to lead the effort.
“We all agreed that it was an opportunity to bring people together, learn about the condition of bees and other pollinators in our state, evaluate how pesticides, climate change and habitat changes are impacting pollinators. We wanted to identify strategies the state could consider to move forward in a productive way to address our concerns,” Kerr said.
Many people think that environmental advocacy, like Audubon’s work to protect pollinators, all takes place at the State House. They imagine Kerr and others testifying at legislative hearings, persuading legislators in one-on-one meetings, and occasionally catching the ear of the governor in a fight for strong environmental policies. But that’s only one small part of the process, as Audubon’s involvement in the Pollinator Working Group suggests.
“It’s a difficult process to pass a bill, but passage doesn’t change anything,” Kerr said. “We need to continue to advocate for full and proper implementation of the bills that we work to get passed. Almost always the bill is asking a state agency to do something, and the agencies are all short-staffed and already have full plates.”
“And just because it was our priority and we were able to convince the legislature to make it a priority,” she added, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a state agency priority or that they have the funding for what we want them to do.”
For example, Audubon fought for two years for passage of amendments to Rhode Island’s Green Buildings Act to add metrics for ensuring that the property around new state buildings is as sustainably designed as the buildings themselves. The bill that passed gives the state an opportunity to pilot test the new metrics on four projects.
“We are now part of the implementation team, helping the state successfully select and implement the four projects” said Kerr. “Once a bill passes, advocates always think about how we can help the state be successful.”
The same was true of the Resilient Rhode Island Act, which established greenhouse gas reduction goals and programs aimed at state agency coordination. Advocates like Kerr who worked to get the bill passed continue to remain engaged to make sure that the state does what the bill directed.
“The point is, our job is not to pass bills. Our job is to make the environment better in Rhode Island,” Kerr said. “Simply passing bills doesn’t do it.”
            The good news is that Audubon is highly respected at the State House, thanks to decades of advocacy by the late executive director Al Hawkes, Marks and others long before Kerr was hired. While Kerr has been an environmental advocate for more than 25 years, she was pleased to see...

Read the rest of the article in the spring 2018 issue of Audubon Report.

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