In what they called a violation of the public trust, conservationists yesterday railed about a pending bill that would open up state-owned forests to logging, a step they argued would pose a threat to hundreds of rare plant species and worsen New Jersey’s deer management problem.
The bill (S-1954), expected to come up in the lame duck legislature, pits the environmental community in a rare public dispute against two of its biggest friends in the Statehouse, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the chairman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee. They are sponsoring the bill in each house.
“If you go to the doctor with a pain in your chest, you don’t expect your leg to be amputated! That’s how this bill treats restoration issues facing our forests, said Emile DeVito, manager of science for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “Overabundant deer and alien plants, animals, and pathogens threaten our forests; logging makes these problems worse. We need careful restoration work, with baseline data and monitoring, species surveys, and deer reduction, not logging plans based foremost on timber value.’’
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the bill part of an effort underway to privatize public lands. The logging of public lands will deny access to the public of those forests and threaten environmentally sensitive areas, Tittel said.
Smith, who has held seven meeting with environmentalists over the past two years in an effort to reach a compromise, said the bill tries to rectify a situation that has allowed more than 800,000 acres of state-owned forests to deteriorate in the past few years.
“You’ve got to clear out the undergrowth and every once in a while, you’ve got to cut down a tree,’’ Smith said, a fact some environmental groups are unwilling to communicate to their members. Otherwise forest conditions will continue to degrade increasing the potential of forest fires and a lack of habitat diversity will occur, he said.
Under the bill, the state Department of Environmental Protection would be directed to develop a harvest program of forest products on state-owned lands, excluding the more than 1 million acres protected in the Pinelands. The bill envisions some of those products being used to provide alternative fuels, such as wood pellets.
Any revenue generated from the harvesting would go first to fund the cost of the program, and then to finance restoration projects in forests to increase diversity of species. However, a fiscal note prepared by the state Office of Legislative Services indicated that DEP projects the program will run a $2.7 million deficit over the five-year contract to be awarded by the state. Smith said that note failed to include the revenue from forest products.
But others argued otherwise.
“Increasing light conditions may benefit some plant and wildlife species in the forest, as some have claimed, but it will also make conditions far worse for many other forest species that are already rare or declining,’’ said Jay Kelly, a professor at Raritan Valley College.
He argued there is no shortage of open habitats in and around the forests of northern and central New Jersey. What’s lacking, he said, is the opposite—large areas of intact, mature forests that have not been disturbed or fragmented by human activities.
That view was disputed by various associations, including the New Jersey Foresty Association, the NJ Outdoor Alliance, and academics in a letter to Smith.
“Very few forests are being regenerated to sustainably produce early successional forests (aged 0-20 years),’’ they wrote in a letter to the lawmaker. “This habitat is critical for a myriad of wildlife, including bird species such as ruffled grouse, golden-winged warbler . . . red-headed woodpecker . . . and imperiled species including bobcat.’’
The legislation also is backed by the New Jersey Farm Bureau, which said it could return a strong forestry economy to the state. The New Jersey Audubon Society also supported the bill, which praised Smith and McKeon for backing off of the “hands-off approach’’ to the state’s forests.
Smith said he expects the bill to be acted on January 9, the last day of the lame duck session.