Clear-Cutting State Land: Responsible Stewardship or Betrayal of Public Trust?

Environmentalists deeply divided on best way to protect NJ woodlands, ask Christie to veto pending legislation

In a dispute about how best to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of state-owned forests, the environmental community remains deeply at odds over a bill that would allow commercial logging on woodlands in New Jersey.

In a letter to Gov. Chris Christie, several of the most prominent environmental organizations yesterday urged him to veto a bill (S-1085) given final approval a week ago by the Assembly.

The issue revolves around the most suitable way to preserve New Jersey’s woodlands. Both critics and advocates of the bill agree this resource faces serious questions about its long-term viability. An estimated 1.8 million acres of the state’s land is forested.

The threats to those forests have been well documented — ranging from illegal development and invasive species that crowd out native plants to an overpopulation of deer and a decline in habitat for endangered and threatened species.

Proponents of the bill say it will produce healthier forests and a better habitat for the plants and animals that live there. But critics say allowing commercial interests to harvest trees on publicly acquired lands purchased with taxpayer funds would amount to a betrayal of the public trust.

The bill, which won final approval in a 46-27 vote, was endorsed by some conservation groups largely because it requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to win approval from an independent Forest Stewardship Council for any forest management plan it develops.

In a letter to lawmakers last month, however, the DEP insisted this provision is an unnecessary and costly requirement.

“The DEP is the steward of New Jersey’s environment; we do not need our work validated by somebody else,’’ wrote David Glass, deputy chief of staff of the DEP. “Moreover, this unnecessary requirement adds a significant financial cost to the program, which will approach approximately $100,000 in the first year.”

The sponsors of the bill also said it would help revive state-owned forests.

“The forest stewardship measure would establish a program to promote the long-term health and vigor of the state’s forest resources through sustainable practices that would help preserve the habitat of diverse native plants as well as endangered species,’’ said Assemblyman John McKeon, a sponsor of the bill.

Some environmental and animal protection groups disputed that assessment.

“We need to protect these forests and the vulnerable ecological assets they hold such as forested wetlands and vernal pools through effective stewardship, not commercial-driven management,’’ said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

The New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, the New Jersey Environmental Federation, and Food and Water Watch, also signed the letter.

“This is all about poaching practices to protect the forest systems,’’ argued Sue Russell, wildlife policy specialist at the Animal Protection League of New Jersey. She argued clear-cutting of the forests would make it easier for hunters to target deer and other game animals.

“Our public forests are the jewels of our state, and demand the strictest protections,’’ said Doug O’Mallley, interim director of Environment New Jersey. “This bill fails that test, and we urge Gov. Christie to veto this legislation.’’

Even with all the criticism of the bill, it has won support from some conservation organizations, including the New Jersey Audubon Society, New Jersey Conservation, New Jersey Farm Bureau, and Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

A message to the New Jersey Audubon Society, the only organization in the state certified to produce Forest Stewardship Plans, was not returned. In the past, Bill Wolfe, an environmental advocate for the Public Employees for Environmental Responsiblilty, argued there were conflicts of interest with the organization’s support of the program because it receives consulting and management fees for the program.