Controversial Bill Could Permit Commercial Logging of State Forests

Measure deeply divides environmental community, though both sides agree better forest management is needed

Advocates say it will lead to better management of New Jersey’s forests], which cover approximately 42 percent of the state, or an estimated 1.8 million acres, according to the most recent survey in 2010.

Critics argue it is a violation of the public trust, possibly opening up nearly 600,000 acres of state-owned forests bought with taxpayer money to commercial logging, a step they say may imperil drinking water supplies for millions of residents and threaten critical habitat to endangered and threatened species.

Few issues have so deeply split the state’s environmental community as a bill (A-1775) revived in the current legislative session that is identical to one killed in the lame-duck session this past January as a result of a conditional veto by Gov. Chris Christie. The bill’s sponsor is Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), widely viewed by environmentalists as one of the few champions of their cause in the Legislature.

Neither side questions the need to address a wide range of problems affecting New Jersey’s woodlands. Those threats range from illegal development, intrusive species that crowd out native plants, an overpopulation of deer, and a decline in habitat for protected species.

How best to deal with those issues remains a continuing source of controversy, one that seems to be also engulfing legislators, given that some of them expressed misgivings about the bill even while voting to release it yesterday from the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

The dispute largely revolves around whether New Jersey’s woodlands would benefit from newly managed stewardship programs that allow logging under certain circumstances. Critics of the bill argued that those plans would be meaningless because the bill lacks provisions to enforce environmental protections.

What impact the bill would have on private lands is uncertain. Two-thirds of New Jersey’s woodlands are privately owned, according to a survey done by the state in 2010. With new standards in place, the state could afford more protections on logging operations on those lands, according to some supporters.

The bill, as did the measure previously vetoed by the governor, proposes to tie logging guidelines to certification by the independent, nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council. That provision was crucial in winning support from some conservation groups, such as the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the New Jersey Farm Bureau, and others.

“We don’t consider this as a logging bill,’’ said Elliott Ruga, senior policy analyst for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, noting the state Department of Environmental Protection already has approved logging operations without enough safeguards. “This would make plans, much, much better than what we have today.’’

Ed Wengry, a research associate at the New Jersey Farm Bureau, agreed. “We think this is a good bill and a good start to restoring the health of the state’s forest lands,’’ he said. “It all starts with creation of a stewardship plan.’’

That very provision, however, led to Christie’s conditional veto earlier this year. The governor called it unconstitutional, saying it would require the DEP to “abdicate its responsibility to serve as the state’s environmental steward to a named third party.’’

In another unusual twist to the debate, Jeff Tittel, probably the governor’s most acerbic critic, agreed with Christie’s reasoning. “We do not agree with Gov. Christie on many issues, but we were in agreement for his reasoning of conditionally vetoing this legislation,’’ Tittel said.

“What’s really concerning to the Sierra Club, it takes public lands and allows them to be leased out under the guise of forest stewardship to allow logging,’’ he said.

But Dave Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey chapter of Clean Water Action, ould not understand why the committee even is reconsidering the bill with provisions allowing the Forest Stewardship Council to set the guidelines for logging operations.

The governor will not support that bill, Pringle argued. “It’s not legally enforceable to make sure logging will be done right,’’ he said.