The Legislature may throw a roadblock into plans to begin logging in the New Jersey Highlands.
Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) yesterday said he will sponsor a bill to prohibit logging in the 860,000 acres of forested expanse and the source of drinking water for more than 6 million residents.
The legislation is designed to close a loophole in the original law establishing protections for the Highlands and also to shut the door on a pilot to allow limited logging on hundreds of acres of land at the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area.
The project, pending before the state Department of Environmental Protection, has caused a sharp rift between New Jersey Audubon and most of New Jersey’s environmental organizations, who view it as undermining one of the key provisions of the Highlands law, preserving mature forests.
“It’s something that shouldn’t happen in the Highlands,’’ said Lesniak, referring to the plan to allow trees to be felled at the Sparta Mountain. He added the bill might prevent the project from moving forward.
“It is designed to do that, for sure,’’ said Lesniak, a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination this June. “We’re hoping it will send a message to the DEP to slow down what they are doing.’’
The controversy surrounds a stewardship plan put together by New Jersey Audubon and the DEP that would allow trees to be logged at the wildlife management area, a 3,4000-acre preserve straddling Morris and Sussex counties and four townships.
About 10 percent of the forested area would be cut, a planwould allow the young forest to develop and enhance wildlife diversity while at the same time protecting water resources. The plan expands a smaller effort to create a habitat for the golden-winged warbler, a songbird experiencing rapid declines in its population in the state.
Lesniak’s proposal drew praise from environmentalists who joined him at a press conference in the State House.
“We support this legislation to protect our forests from logging in the name of stewardship,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Our forests were bought for all of us to protect the environment, preserve habitat for important wildlife species, and safeguard clean water.’’
Besides the logging ban, Lesniak also is sponsoring another bill that would designate all state-owned lands as adhering to the so-called Landscape Project. The program, overseen by the DEP, is designed to help preserve and protect endangered plant species found in New Jersey.
“There is a real danger from the equipment that would be used in logging that would go through wetlands and other sensitive, ecologically important areas,’’ Lesniak said.