Opinion: Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back Into the Forest

Environmentalists threaten encore presentation opposing forestry legislation

In case you were not embarrassed enough by some of the depressing anti-environmental outcomes of the 2010-2011 legislative session, a number of our stalwart green activists seem to have adopted a strategy that may actually result in that sorry record being surpassed in the legislative session that began this January. How could this possibly be, you may ask. Surely we have no place to go but up, reversing some of the worst policy decisions since James Watt and Anne Gorsuch ran roughshod over the environment.

While you may think that the Garden State green community would be putting all of its energy into things like finding a way to get the state back into RGGI, preparing to challenge the adoption of the waiver rule, plotting to undo the evisceration of the water quality management program, or even drawing a line on extending environmental permits yet again, you would be wrong. While environmental activists are working on those matters, they are also placing a huge emphasis on opposing the forestry legislation sponsored by Senator Bob Smith and Assemblyman John McKeon, who just happen to be the top environmental advocates in their respective houses.

In a curious case of priority setting, an impressive array of environmental organizations and grassroots activists have mounted a fairly nasty battle against a bill that would encourage the use of ecological forestry on public lands. The goal is to produce healthier forests and a better habitat, while scaring up a modest amount of income to help manage and restore these lands. Labeling the bill (S-1085) as the “logging bill,” opponents have vociferously opposed its enactment, while demonizing its supporters (including fellow environmentalists), questioning the motives of the bill’s sponsors and giving a whole new life and meaning to the derogatory term “tree-huggers.”

One has to ask if the enviros can actually see the forest for the trees. Surely, most knowledgeable folks know that the DEP already has the authority to harvest however many trees it chooses from state forests, state parks, and wildlife management areas. And no sane person can believe that we have done a good job managing these areas, or deny that our failure to be better stewards of these public lands has not already resulted in a loss of some of the resource values that led us to want to protect them in the first place. Ironically, some of the very groups that oppose the legislation have been in the forefront of efforts to manage their own lands using the very same ecological forestry techniques that the bill seeks to promote.

Clearly, no one wants New Jersey’s forests to be opened to the kind of destructive commercial logging that has turned big chunks of the southeastern United States into sterile monocultures of hybrid trees. This is the same approach that has clear-cut and devastated large areas of federal lands out west. But that scenario does not seem to be even plausible under the Smith-McKeon legislation, which seeks to promote sound planning, as well as ecologically based forestry as a tool for sound management and enhanced stewardship, with multiple safeguards that ought to be acceptable to stakeholders on every side of this issue.

To be sure, the opponents have made some legitimate points, particularly when they express concerns that overabundant deer populations will need to be controlled in order to ensure forest regeneration after any significant amount of tree-thinning. Or when they suggest that ecological forestry management should take place only in the context of science-based planning, which has ecological concerns, rather than economic return, as it prime objective. Even when they caution that we need to thoughtfully design plans to ensure that ecological forestry will do no harm, particularly to rare species habitat and sensitive environmental areas.

Yet these concerns can and should be addressed by some straightforward amendments, and I seriously doubt that the sponsors would have any problem whatsoever with making them.

It would also be helpful if the DEP would actually propose the regulations that were called for in earlier forest stewardship legislation, as well as appoint the members of the forest stewardship committee. This committee is an advisory group that must, under federal law, include a balanced array of stakeholders, with particularly strong environmental representation. Such a group would be a real asset to the DEP in doing the planning needed to ensure that the bill is implemented in an appropriate fashion. And the use of a third-party certification process to review and audit forestry projects, as suggested by both opponents and supporters, would also go a long way to engendering public confidence that the use of ecological forestry will not result in converting our public lands into barren wastelands.

With some simple amendments, and a commitment by the DEP to step up and address its responsibilities, it is hard for me to comprehend how this legislation would not help us to dramatically improve the management of our public lands. First, by encouraging better planning for forest management; second, by providing additional resources for managing and restoring our public lands; and third, by allowing us to (finally) move on from this issue in order to devote more time and energy to either modifying some of the mistakes of the past legislative session, or at least to opposing some of the scary new ideas that are already being put forth in this new session.

At the risk of being on the receiving end of personal attacks and having both my motives and my integrity questioned as a result of the publication of this column, I feel compelled to strongly urge my colleagues in the environmental community to find a way to come to terms with this legislation, as some very well-respected groups like the New Jersey Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy have already done. I think it is also high time for environmentalists to give their champions Senator Smith and Assemblyman McKeon just a wee benefit of the doubt and a tad of deference, lest they alienate some of the last remaining friends they have in this legislature, and find themselves facing the prospects of an even gloomier legislative session than the one that just ended.