The Nature Conservancy is best known for protecting iconic landscapes and natural places for people to enjoy and wildlife to thrive. For most of its existence, it has served as a giant land trust, purchasing properties inhabited by rare species and protecting those sites from development.
In recent years, though, the Conservancy has begun to invest in coastal and ocean conservation, places that – unlike a forest – cannot be bought. To further emphasize that new focus, the organization’s Rhode Island chapter recently hired East Side resident John Torgan as its state director.
A native of Providence, John is perhaps best known as Save the Bay’s first Baykeeper, the public watchdog for Narragansett Bay. He followed his interest in marine preservation to the Conservancy in 2011, when he was named the Rhode Island office’s first director of ocean and coastal conservation.
“My love for water and marine life and fishing has inspired a passion for cleaning up rivers and tidal waters, and that’s stayed with me my entire life,” says John. “Cleaning up waterways is the best thing we can do for nature in Rhode Island. Protecting land and water is where we start and end.”
He is hoping his organization can pick up the slack from the Trump Administration’s proposed funding cuts to environmental protection and conservation programs. “This is an extremely challenging time in the environmental world,” John says. “But we’re lucky that we are strong and have deep support in all 50 states. We find ourselves in a unique position to make a difference in a number of core areas.”
One of those areas is Providence, where the Conservancy is establishing a program to conserve the upper bay and the rivers that feed into Providence Harbor. “The Providence River is cleaner than it’s been in seven generations,” John says. “It’s full of marine life; people are catching big striped bass in downtown Providence; and there are so many menhaden there that you can walk across their backs. That’s an extraordinary change.” Managing polluted stormwater runoff from paved surfaces is the next big environmental issue for the Providence metro area, according to John, and the even bigger challenge is climate change. “We need to be thinking now about our coastal cities and about restorative ways to protect them, because changes are happening from ever higher tides and storm surges. There are immediate needs in our coastal communities, and we think nature has a big role in the solution.”