2005-09-01 / Front Page

Russell Clarke honored with environmental award

By Michaela Kennedy

Russell Clarke receives the land trust environmental award from the organization’s president, Mary Hutchinson. Photo by Michaela Kennedy Russell Clarke receives the land trust environmental award from the organization’s president, Mary Hutchinson. Photo by Michaela Kennedy The first annual Russell S. Clarke Environmental Service Award was presented to the man who inspired the award at the Aug. 25 annual meeting of the Conanicut Island Land Trust.

Clarke, a Jamestowner since birth, admitted some embarrassment at the honor about to be given him. “You don’t think of it when you’re doing those things. You’re enjoying doing it. I enjoy doing that,” Clarke said at an earlier interview.

He talked about the pro-active environmental preservation work he had been involved with over the years. Clarke’s sparkling conversation of what the land trust is, how it all began, and the direction of its future quickly overcame any embarrassment he may have had from being in the spotlight.

Russell Clarke took this photo in the late 1970s that includes state dignitaries Sen. John H. Chafee, Congressman Fernand St. Germain, Congresswoman Claudine Schneider and Senator Claiborne Pell. In the center is Robert Bendick of the state Department of Environmental Management. They were all in Jamestown looking at land that the federal government was planning to sell off. Russell Clarke took this photo in the late 1970s that includes state dignitaries Sen. John H. Chafee, Congressman Fernand St. Germain, Congresswoman Claudine Schneider and Senator Claiborne Pell. In the center is Robert Bendick of the state Department of Environmental Management. They were all in Jamestown looking at land that the federal government was planning to sell off. Clarke talked about the beginnings of the land trust in the early 1980s with as much enthusiasm as if it were yesterday. He noted that the land trust became incorporated in 1984, and received taxexempt status in 1985.

Out-going Land Trust President Mary Hutchinson, hosting the interview, gave Land Trust Vice President Elizabeth Allen credit for coming up with the idea of recognizing Clarke with an award. “We have had a plaque made up, and it will be awarded annually by the land trust to a member of the community for showing outstanding contributions towards the preservation of the environment and natural resources in Jamestown,” Hutchinson said.

Clarke shared some events that were notable catalysts in the birth of the land trust. “In the ‘70s, Jamestown really sprung up in the Shores area. Every day you’d come over the bridge you’d see new houses,“ Clarke remembered. He told of a friend who used to go home to his wife complaining about the development. “She finally told him either shut up or do something about it. So he wrote two lines, very simply, “Controlled Growth”,” Clarke said.

Four islanders, with Clarke being the only native in “the group” as they called themselves, put together a petition in the early ‘80s in support of controlled growth and preservation of open space. Passed around neighborhoods on the island, the petition stated, “We all have one common goal, and that is to preserve our way of life and the environment or ecological structure of the island.” A solution offered was to limit housing starts, not to exceed an agreed upon number annually.

“We had a taxpayers’ association. The association sent it out,” Clarke explained. “We put it together and started to get signatures. At that time there were four of us. We ended up with over 1,400 valid voting list names out of 2,400 on the island.” Clarke told how the idea was modeled after a similar resolution put out to residents in Holliston, N.H.

Although the resolution for controlled growth in Jamestown stalled at the state level, Clarke was satisfied that the effort brought to island residents a deepened awareness of the environment and the need to protect it. The petition resulted in the town designating a cap of 42 new housing constructions per year, a number decided upon after reviewing the average of home construction permits over a 10-year period.

Also in the late ‘70s, the town started up the Beavertail Recreation Committee, according to Clarke. The federal government was excising land, with Ft. Wetherill and Beavertail on the list. “Reagan just wanted to sell the land to whoever would buy it,” Clarke added. He said a group of residents started talking about buying the land for public use, saying, “It used to be our land.”

The state stepped in and told the islanders that it would cost too much for the local community to pay for the upkeep of a park. Clarke recalled the day U. S. Senators Claiborne Pell and John Chafee, U.S. Representatives Claudine Schneider and Fernand St. Germain all flew by helicopter into Ft. Wetherill and Beavertail. “No way the state was going to let Jamestown have it. The state said it would cost too much money to fix up,” Clarke said. Again, the community effort toward preservation paid off. Co-operation with the state allowed the island to protect and enjoy the waterfront parcels as public parks.

The original incorporators with Clarke — Gerald McDonough, Sally Walsh, Lawrence Walsh and Gail Cory Beaumont — continued to keep the ball rolling with the inception of the land trust in 1984.

Clarke has been recognized in the past for his environmental and community efforts. He told of the World Prodigy oil spill in the late ‘80s when prisoners from the Adult Correctional Institutes and volunteers joined forces to do clean up. He and Elaine Hunt, another strong environmental advocate, passed out lunches to the workers along the coastline, Clarke said.

At Hull Cove, they saw Gov. Edward DiPrete fly in by helicopter and ran over to meet him. “When he went to shake hands, I put the land trust pamphlet in his hand. A few weeks later we got these proclamations, one for me, one for Elaine, and one for the land trust,” Clarke noted. Beavertail was one of DiPrete’s favorite spots to park his camper, he added.

With Clarke being “one year shy of the big eight-oh”, Hutchinson said that all involved in the land trust were “newbies” compared to Clarke, who lives his life as a true environmentalist. “His heart is really here,” she added.

Clarke pointed out that Hutchinson work has also been appreciated. “Ten good years she put in, excellent years,” Clarke said.

Clarke emphasized that the work must continue. “I don’t feel that’s anything that can ever stop, right down to the last puddle hole,” he said. He spoke of the acquisition project underway that would protect three farms between Eldred Avenue to the saltwater marsh in the central corridor of the island.

“That’s tremendous when you’re talking about a little island that is one mile wide and nine miles long. Jeepers crow,” he added.

Clarke and Hutchinson also talked about what property owners can do if they have land to contribute to open space. They encouraged potential donors to call the land trust and talk about options.

As Clarke and Hutchinson talked about the accomplishments of the land trust over the last 20 years, Clarke expressed satisfaction, “This island has done quite a bit, come to think about it,” Clarke noted.

He spoke of his dreams, saying, “We hoped that you were doing something that would be favorable down the road.”

Russell Clarke doesn’t have to wait for his dreams to come true. He and anyone else on the island, resident or visitor, can enjoy and appreciate the island’s natural surroundings thanks to his vision and leadership.

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