Steven Rodas – nj.com
A new plan to cut as many as 2.4 million small trees from a dense section of the New Jersey Pinelands as part of wildfire mitigation efforts by the state has drawn criticism from some officials and environmental advocates.
The initiative, officially called the “Allen and Oswego Road Fire Mitigation and Habitat Restoration Project,” was adopted by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission following a meeting Oct. 14 and is set to begin in 2023.
State officials said the tree cutting will focus on the smallest snow-bent pitch pine trees in a section of Bass River State Forest where trees have reached a density of about 2,000 per acre — compared to the average of 500 state officials say is elsewhere in the forest. The goal, according to the state, is to remove the small saplings that average about two inches in diameter as a way to bolster defenses against wildfires, which have only become more unpredictable over the years. While some activists say the cutting is justified, others worry about removing trees and the benefits of the carbon they store.
Environmental advocates said the plan is excessive and an uncommon step. One Pinelands Commission member said, especially in the age of climate change, the board approves tree cutting only in “rare circumstances” tied to fire control and diseased tree outgrowth.
John Cecil, State Parks, Forests, and Historic Sites assistant commissioner, said the project, which is expected to take a decade to complete, would represent the largest removal of small trees in the Pinelands “in recent history.” However, Cecil emphasized, that based on modeling his staff has performed — which takes into account factors like weather and other environmental conditions — a wildfire in the same section could mean the loss of or severe damage to between 4 and 12 million trees some of which are much larger than two inches.
“The selection of trees to be removed is a function of not only their number, but their size, position in the forest and the risks they pose by being susceptible to bark beetles and potential to carry wildfire from the ground to the forest canopy,” a DEP spokesman said in a statement.
As part of the plan, trees will be cut in an area that spans 1,300 acres in Bass River State Forest — a small portion of the 1.1-million-acre Pinelands National Reserve. About 90% of the trees will be cut within 1,100 acres of the forest section and 96% of the trees will be cut in the remaining area, which will total about 2.4 million trees, according to Lohbauer and fellow Pinelands Commissioner Edward Lloyd.
Of the 15-member Pinelands Commission, Mark Lohbauer and Theresa Lettman voted against the plan that includes the tree removal. Commissioner Doug Wallner abstained.
“I think it’s a bad precedent and goes against the state’s mandates with regard to climate change,” Pinelands Commissioner Mark Lohbauer, who voted against the plan in October, told NJ Advance Media over the phone.
“We have a state law in place, the Global Warming Response Act, that require us to do our utmost in terms of protecting sources of sequestration of carbon,” Lohbauer said. “Forest trees and other green plants in the forest are some of the greatest sources of sequestration that we have in New Jersey and I was not convinced that the Forest Service had a good reason for cutting down all of the trees that they are talking about.”
The tree cutting is expected to begin between April 15 and Nov. 15, 2023 when a threatened and endangered snake species is not hibernating, but not between May 1 and July 15, 2023 during peak bird breeding season, according to New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna.
“We cherish these forest resources and really want them to be as healthy and thriving as they can be,” Cecil added. “We’re concerned about firefighters’ safety, about people and property and concerned about the condition of the forest. If the forest catches on fire we’re going to lose a tremendous amount of carbon to the atmosphere, which is not what anyone wants. If we can take proactive measures to protect the carbon resource, protect people and property, it seems like a smart thing to do.”
To fight a recent wildfire that began at the Mullica River, crews employed a variety of tactics including controlled burns that can create barriers to slow down wildfires and by using “fuel breaks” — strips or blocks of vegetation or other materials used to divert fires or protect certain areas. In the case of the Wharton State Forest fire, one such proactive measure was a 5-mile stretch of road carved into the landscape, known as the Washington Turnpike project.
A similar means to slow the spread of future wildfires will be made available through the new plan, officials claimed. “The fire break operation will include a 25-foot clearing on either side of the road,” said Hajna, a DEP spokesman.
While discussing how dense the designated section of Bass River State Forest has become, Hajna and Cecil said the latest data from 2019 indicates the average number of trees per acre throughout the Pinelands is about 500. There are approximately 2,000 trees per acre in the section of forest targeted in the plan, they said.
“It’s really not accurate to talk about 2 million trees being cut because they’re not trees in the typical sense. They’re all the tiny little bent over saplings that are only (a few) inches wide, and they don’t have a chance of ever growing up tall,” said Emile DeVito, a staff biologist with Chester Township-based non-profit, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, who is in favor of the plan. “They are beneath the regular tall trees that make up the canopy.”
An aspect of the plan DeVito and others are opposed to is the possible use of herbicides to prevent invasive species regeneration. Use of the chemicals, they fear, could impact the aquifer that lays beneath the Pinelands and holds fresh drinking water.
The state said, “If herbicide treatment is necessary, the Forest Service will be using herbicides which are designed to not travel through soil and contaminate ground water.”
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