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Compromise Solution Could Help Restore Health of NJ Woodlands

NJ lawmaker proposes merging bills on harvesting state lands, restoring Pinelands ecological fires.

Few argue New Jersey’s dwindling forests are in trouble.

An overpopulation of deer, invasive species that crowd out native flora, and a decline in habitat for threatened and endangered species all continue to risk the health of about 800,00 acres of state-owned woodlands.

Now, after a couple years of negotiations, lawmakers may finally be arriving at a compromise plan to manage the state’s forests, including the more than 1 million acres protected in the Pinelands, which have been plagued by the infestation of the southern pine beetle.

If so, it would amount to a breakthrough over a highly contentious issue, which has pitted Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), two of the leading environmental leaders in the legislature, against green groups in New Jersey in a rare public dispute.

The issue was sparked by a bill (S-1085) that would allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop a harvest program on state-owned lands, a means of providing some needed resources to help manage the rest of New Jersey’s forests.

Many environmentalists initially opposed any effort to harvest from state lands, calling the practice commercial logging, which should never be allowed on open spaces that have been protected, largely through Green Acre bond issues and other public funds.

“The forested lands are held in public trust,’’ said Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, adding more than 5 million people get their drinking water from supplies in the Highlands.

But others argued concerns over limiting harvesting -- Smith urged that it be called management -- amounts to tunnel vision when looking at the overall health of the state’s forests.

“The big picture is over the last 40 years there has been a marked decline in the function of public lands in New Jersey,’’ said Doug Tavella, a consulting forester in the northwest part of the state.

In a bid to forge a compromise, Smith is proposing to merge his bill with another measure that would allow proscribed burning of forests in the Pinelands, a move that has been generally embraced by many conservation groups..

“We need to get back to it in the Pinelands,’’ said Emile DeVito, manager of science and stewardship for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Many rare species that only occur in the Pinelands require naturally occurring ecological fires to generate, including many orchids that grow in wetlands, DeVito said.

“You need to restore the ecological fire,’’ he said. Those naturally occurring fires have been suppressed by efforts to control damage by burns that threaten building developments in the Pinelands.

The Pinelands also has been hurt by the infestation of the southern pine beetle, which destroyed 14,100 acres in 2010. The beetle lays eggs in trees, which cuts off the supply of water and nutrients.

Beyond the proscribed burning in the Pinelands, there seems to be a growing consensus that a proper forest management plan could be achieved, with limited harvesting, if it was overseen by a third-party certification process to make sure any cutting of trees is done in accord with proper forestry management practices.

“An independent third-party certification system is the best way to steward our forests,’’ said Eric Olsen, of the New Jersey Nature Conservancy. “It sets a rigorous mark for management of our forests.’’

Lynn Fleming, state forester for New Jersey, also endorsed the system and said the state is seeking additional funding to manage its woodlands from the U.S. Fish, Game and Wildlife Service.

Smith, who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said he hopes to have a compromise bill voted out of his panel by April 26.

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