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Op-Ed: What Do New Jersey’s Forests Mean to You?

With 42 percent of the state forested, it’s vital that it remains viable and healthy for future generations.

New Jersey is not only the most densely populated state, but probably the most diverse, as well – demographically, politically, socially and economically. But what many don’t realize, even longtime, New Jersey natives, is how diverse the state’s natural resources are: from its beaches to its farmland, to its mountains and many lakes and streams, to its forests. Forty-two percent, in fact, of New Jersey is forested – a reality that surprises many people.

What do New Jersey’s forests mean to you? A leisurely, spring canoe trip through The Pines on one of South Jersey’s tea-colored rivers? Or a weekend afternoon drive in North Jersey enjoying the vibrant fall foliage? Bird-watching, hiking, hunting or fishing? Curling up in front of the woodstove on a cold winter night after throwing one more stick of firewood on the fire? Our forests are important for all of these things and more, including clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, unique ecosystems and forest products.

What is particularly special about New Jersey’s forests is that they are resilient, renewable and sustainable. Regardless of whether privately- or publicly-owned, appropriately applied concepts of forest science and ecology can insure that the state’s forests remain viable and healthy for future generations. Sterling examples of these applied concepts abound around the state. Is clean water important to you? Then you might be interested in The Pinchot Institute’s Common Waters Fund, a partnership of public and non-profit organizations and agencies promoting “clean water, healthy forests, sustainable communities” in the Delaware River watershed north of the Delaware Water Gap. One of its objectives is encouraging forest landowners located in the watershed in Sussex and Warren counties to develop forest stewardship plans for their forests.

Is wildlife and wildlife habitat important to you? Did you know that 29 species listed as threatened and endangered by the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife are forest dependent? Habitat for specific wildlife species can be sustainably created or enhanced through careful planning and thinning or removal of trees and other vegetation, sometimes followed by planting and restoration of alternative plant species. The NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife recently teamed with NJ Audubon to create habitat for the golden-winged warbler in the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Sussex County. Critical habitat for the warbler is early successional deciduous forest that has just had the overstory vegetation removed, up to about 20 years old, very open and brushy. The warbler has been in steady decline in New Jersey due to the lack of this habitat, and is considered a “species of concern.” Habitat restoration may keep it from becoming “threatened and endangered”.

Are unique ecotypes and forest restoration important to you? Did you know that Atlantic white cedar forests in New Jersey currently occupy only about 25 percent of the land area they formally occupied 300 yeas ago, when colonial expansion began to accelerate? And that they are now considered a globally rare ecotype? NJ Audubon recently implemented a forest stewardship plan on its “Hovnanian Sanctuary,” one of their forests in Ocean County. In addition to lowering risk of wildfire and improving critical habitats for various plant and animal species, an Atlantic white cedar restoration project was a major goal. This restoration will not only reestablish Atlantic white cedar, but over time it will also benefit such species as barred owl, swamp pink and Hessel’s hairstreak.

Are New Jersey grown forest products important to you? While New Jersey’s forests will likely never support major forest industries like many of our neighboring northeastern states, there is potential for meeting local and area needs and contributing to local economies. For many years now, the NJ Department of Agriculture’s “Jersey Fresh” program has successfully assisted the State’s farmers to market their crops locally. In 2009, the NJ Department of Agriculture included firewood in its newly-created “Jersey Grown” program. It expanded the program in 2011 to include forest products “Made From Jersey Grown Wood”. New Jersey consumers can take pride in “Jersey Grown”-labeled forest products, and be assured that they are produced from sustainably managed forests.

So what do New Jersey’s forests mean to you? New Jersey’s forests mean many different things to many different people. That is precisely why our forests are so important – now, and for future generations. And why, regardless whether publicly- or privately-owned, we need to focus on ‘keeping our forests in forests’. The only way to insure that our forests remain viable, healthy, productive forests for future generations is through planning and implementation of the latest concepts of forest science and ecology.

Mark Vodak is an associate professor/extension specialist in forestry at Rutgers University. His areas of interest are private, non-industrial forest management, silviculture and Christmas tree production, and his extension educational programming and applied research program focuses on forest stewardship, forest health and the Christmas tree industry. He is the author/co-author of more than 235 articles and has been responsible for over 340 presentations, seminars, and programs for landowners and professional foresters.

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