New England’s Regional Planning Body is Making Progress

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By Sean Cosgrove, Conservation Law Foundation, SCosgrove [at]

Those of us who have been watching the regional ocean planning process in New England evolve were happy to see the progress made at the second Northeast Regional Planning Body meeting last week. The group has convened through the National Ocean Policy to develop a region-wide ocean management plan. They gathered around the “big table” once again to push forward toward that goal.

The primary theme of the meeting of the Northeast Regional Planning Body (RPB), in Narragansett, RI, last week was goal-setting. It was clear that the RPB members had been doing their homework since they formally met last November. Each of the three sections of the designated RPB member groups – State, Tribal, and Federal – had drafted a set of goals separately prior to the meeting, and then throughout the meeting all RPB members worked together to unify those goals into short, pithy statements. They didn’t quite complete the task, but they got close.

The Northeast Regional Planning Body listens to public comments last week in Narragansett, Rhode Island.

There are three common themes running throughout the draft goals:

1. Healthy Ecosystems – Protecting, maintaining and restoring ocean and coastal ecosystems in the face of increasing demands on resources and rapidly changing conditions.

2. Compatibility of Uses – Making plans to minimize conflict among different uses like fishing, shipping, offshore renewable energy, recreation, and protection of ecosystems.

3. Effective Governance, or as Betsy Nicholson of NOAA, the Federal co-lead of the RPB, put it, “Improving our effectiveness within our existing authorities.”

As good goal setting should be, the discussion was thorough, honest, and earnest. For example, Doug Harris, Historic Preservation Officer of the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island, wanted to make sure stewardship was a meaningful part of the goals and their implementation. He spoke eloquently about the spiritual connection to nature and the Native American view of taking care of creation for seven generations. He worried that placing dollar values on ecosystem components as a tool for making management decisions (and part of the compatible uses goal) is actually mitigation not stewardship. “I don’t want to get paid for agreeing to destruction,” he said, “I can’t take that back to my spirit world.”

Glenn Normandeau, Executive Director of NH Department of Fish and Game, offered a similar idea that the public trust has been forgotten. “The government holds these resources in public trust for all people. For example, when we issue a shell-fishing permit we are giving a private citizen use of a publicly held resource. We have to look at all other uses through that lens.”

There were some people in the room who were not thrilled with the progress made last week by the RPB. For example, the National Ocean Policy Coalition (an oil industry consortium working to oppose any implementation of the National Ocean Policy) asked that the RPB please slow down since there is no precedent for this process. At the same time, they also asked for a seat at the big table.

That aside, most in the room were strong supporters of the National Ocean Policy and regional ocean planning and some offered constructive criticism and advice on the topics of goals and stakeholder and public engagement. Richard Nelson, a lobster fisherman from Friendship, Maine and a leading voice in the New England Ocean Action Network, warned that the RPB not become dismissive of public participation, and reminded them, “We want some hands-on participation in our destiny with the ocean.”

Priscilla Brooks, Vice President and Director of the Ocean Program at Conservation Law Foundation, agreeing with that sentiment, said, “It's not enough to give us 3 minutes at the microphone.” She proposed that the RPB establish a stakeholder advisory board of many different representatives from ocean user groups and a scientific advisory board to inform the RPB’s deliberations and serve as technical experts.

The RPB will be addressing these and other stakeholder and public ideas and comments in a yet-to-be announced public process in May. This is a work in progress and, as Grover Fugate, the RPB State Co-lead and Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management, said, “Goals, by nature, means that we’re not there yet, and we have a lot of work to do.” Joseph Atangan of the US Navy and the representative to the RPB from the Joint Chiefs of Staff added, “It’s the process that’s most important, not the product.” Ocean planning is, after all, a process.

Sean Cosgrove is Ocean Campaign Director for the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). Sean has over twenty years experience as a conservation advocate and has extensive experience in designing and directing grassroots conservation campaigns, working legislation and appropriations issues on Capitol Hill and in the media. Sean earned a B.A. in History and a B.S. in Environmental Science from Western Washington University. He loves to sit in a sea kayak far offshore.