Conservation Overview

Awash in natural beauty, the Ocean State features thousands of acres dedicated to wildlife refuges, 400-plus miles of coastline, including more than 100 public and private beaches.

Most of Rhode Island drains into Narragansett Bay, a vast watershed that extends northward to the rest of the state and into Massachusetts. In the past five years, many of the most substantial environmental conservation, restoration, and monitoring projects in Rhode Island have become oriented towards the Bay watershed, taking its entirety as the area of interest and embracing systems approaches to management and monitoring.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

Rhode Island supports almost 900 vertebrate wildlife species and an estimated 20,000 invertebrates spanning the scenic coastline of Narragansett Bay to the upland forests typical of the New England region.

At 317 acres, the John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for the largest black duck population in Rhode Island, and is recognized under international agreements as a critically important area for this species. Refuge lands on Block Island are most notable for the large concentration (over 70 species) of migratory songbirds which visit the area each fall. Located in the Atlantic flyway, many young, inexperienced songbirds "overfly" the mainland and stopover on Block Island before continuing their migration.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

The state created a special government commission, the Bays, Rivers, and Watershed Coordination Team, to review inter-agency activities and make recommendations to enhance effectiveness through higher level planning and greater coordination. At the same time, two federally funded projects focused on Narragansett Bay—the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program—have undertaken comprehensive program reviews and produced new work plans that focus on the entire Bay watershed as the proper scale for environmental initiatives.

Despite the threat to the state's environmental conservation capability posed by fiscal problems, important conservation achievements continue to be made. In 2004 and 2008, voters approved open space bonds by wide margins and these funds have allowed state, town, and private land conservation organizations to continue setting aside land for habitat and recreation. Particularly noteworthy was the purchase, in 2007, of over 1,600 acres of pristine forest and farm land in the high-priority "Pawcatuck Borderlands" area which straddles the Connecticut-Rhode Island border. This is the largest transfer of land into conservation in decades and combined the efforts of The Nature Conservancy and town, state, and federal authorities. In 2008, the Narragansett Bay Commission, operator of the major urban sewage system, completed phase one of its $359 million combined sewer overflow project which will substantially improve water quality in upper Narragansett Bay.

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