2010-12-23 / Front Page

Island’s conservation leader passes torch

Chaired panel for 26 years
By Geoff Campbell

Chris Powell Chris Powell Chris Powell is stepping down as chair of the Jamestown Conservation Commission after 26 years of passionate leadership that has resulted in quantifiable success.

In 1984, Jack Heelan, who was president of the Jamestown Town Council, asked Powell to serve as the chair of the newly established commission. Powell told Heelan that he would, and the Jamestown Conservation Commission was born: “The purpose of which is to promote and develop the natural resources, protect the watershed resources, and preserve the natural esthetic areas.”

Under the direction of Powell, the commission flourished. His goal was straightforward; he wanted to “raise public awareness of environmental issues in general.”

Preservation of open space, including the purchase of the golf course, development rights to the Hodgkiss Farm, and later, more farmland through the Conanicut Island Land Trust, were all major conservation achievements that Powell notes were accomplished with the commission pushing and encouraging the town.

Powell also recounts the battle with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to establish the cross island expressway as a parkway. He described the initial reticence of RIDOT to embrace the parkway concept, wooden guardrails, and a proposed $1 million budget for landscaping. Eventually a lawsuit over RIDOT’s initial design, which included filling in 10 acres of wetlands to create an embankment that would support the roadway north of the Great Creek, was filed and won.

Powell explained that the resulting retaining-wall design reduced the fill area to two acres and the wildlife tunnels that are not easily seen from North Road provide safe transit for animals seeking to get to the other side. Powell said that RIDOT had never done that and that the reduced road kill in the area is proof of their value.

The formation of the Conanicut Island Land Trust, a Conservation Commission brainchild according to Powell, is also among the remarkable achievements during his reign. The efforts of the community to achieve what seemed impossible at first are well documented and have added to the island’s retention of it’s rural character.

Powell also highlighted the role that the commission has played in keeping an environmental focus in the foreground, acting as a kind of community conservation watchdog.

The commission’s role in “creating public access to the trail system,” is further evidence of their desire to do tangible work, Powell said.

This advisory role makes Powell’s record of success even more remarkable given the lack of direct power given to the commission.

Powell eschews credit for anything more than consistently providing people with the information necessary to make informed decisions. “I was just the chair,” he said. “No one can do it alone; there were a lot of good people and a lot of time.”

Powell and the commission have accomplished a great deal and he is quick to point out that “Jamestown is a place where good people come together to get things done.”

Powell’s final day will be Dec. 31, and at the Dec. 14 meeting, Powell’s last, Carol Trocki was chosen by the commission to lead the group forward.

Powell said that he is pleased with the choice.

“In my opinion, I could not have asked for a person with more qualifi cations or leadership skills,” he said. “She will be tough and great for the commission.”

He added that in his final term as chair, he and the other commissioners focused on maintaining strong membership moving forward.

Reflecting on the up-and-down sides of aggressively acquiring community open space, Powell said that open space ultimately costs a community less than developed land but the downside is often the out-of-reach property costs resulting from creating a highly desirable place to live.

Chris Powell grew up in Middletown. He graduated from La Salle Academy and attended George Mason University in Virginia where he received a bachelor’s degree in biology.

Drafted into the armed services, Powell chose to serve as a Navy medic extending his service time to four years. The training and subsequent assignments were in line with his degree and his “desire to do some good.”

He served in Naval hospitals up and down the East Coast and when his tour was up, he returned to George Mason where he earned a master’s degree in marine biology and fisheries.

He first applied his credentials in the Fisheries Department of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Not particularly excited by the prospect of a D.C. commuter’s life and having maintained connections in Rhode Island where his family still lived, he came home in 1978.

His first job back in Rhode Island was a two-year appointment in the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the National Ocean Administration. He smiled as he described the nature of his work: “120 days at sea each year, including two week stints on two different Russian research vessels.”

After working a couple of years on temporarily funded projects at the University of Rhode Island, Powell found a permanent home with the Marine Fisheries Section of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, where he served as a principal marine biologist until his retirement two years ago.

Among the projects that engaged him was a bay-wide juvenile fish survey, which he designed and ran for 20 years and is still ongoing. He also mentions a successful winter flounder tagging project that he was involved with.

Expecting Jamestown real estate to be out of reach but hoping to land on the island during their initial house hunt, Powell and his wife, Candy, looked to the east and west and were pleasantly surprised when a realtor friend called them about an affordable property in Jamestown.

It was his dream to “live in a small town, have a boat on the bay, get involved in the community and make a difference.” Powell is living his dream.

Not a one-dimensional community leader, Powell was instrumental in starting the Jamestown Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in 1978. Joining forces with Linda Brodin, Powell remembers that the first year the tree stood without lights because of a lack of funds.

Perhaps the role that provides the most fun, Powell has played the chief fool in the Fools’ Regatta since 1981. He said that he rarely hears a complaint and he added that he is pleased that the excess proceeds from the sale of t-shirts and hats are donated to various worthy causes around town.

The Raptor Project, initiated by Powell and Betsy Gooding, is an extension of Rob Bierregaard’s work out of University of North Carolina Charlotte. Funded in part by the Jamestown Education Foundation, Powell is happy with the understanding of osprey’s migration habits that has resulted from the transmitters that have been placed on the birds. He is also pleased with the increase in public interest boosted by the camera mounted on the pole that hosts the nest in the Great Creek.

When Powell isn’t sailing, or contributing to an ever improving quality of life for his community, Powell can be found at Roger Williams University, where he teaches lab sections of upper level courses in marine biology. Having always been impressed by the quality of the students and the facilities, Powell continues to enjoy sharing what he has learned with others.

Powell is happy that the island is in its current state and while he acknowledges changes that have occurred, he sees how much of the town’s rural character has been retained.

Let’s not dare to imagine what Jamestown might look like without the tireless efforts of Chris Powell to keep conservation and preservation a priority for the island.

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