Commercial Logging of State Land Taken Up Again By Senate Committee

Advocates contend 'limited harvesting' could improve health of woodlands, opponents call commercial presence a violation of public trust

The Legislature is poised to take another crack at allowing commercial logging on more than a million acres of New Jersey’s forests.

The issue deeply split the state’s environmental community when it was approved in the previous legislative session, but it ended up dying after being conditionally vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.

To some, limited harvesting of trees — as they prefer to describe the process — on the state’s 1.8 million acres of woodlands could prove beneficial by producing healthier forests and a better habitat for the plants and animals that live there. Others oppose the measure because it would betray a public trust of lands acquired with taxpayer money, potentially weakening support for open-space financing in the future.

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee will consider the latest version of the measure (S-2034) today in Trenton. Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee, is the sponsor as he was in the previous legislative term.

Smith’s bill directs the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to develop a program for the stewardship of forests on state-owned lands based on standards developed by the independent, nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council.

But Christie, in his conditional veto message last year, called the bill unconstitutional, saying it would require the DEP to “abdicate its responsibility to serve as the state’s environmental steward to a third party.’’

Lawmakers and conservation groups have been debating the issue for several years among widespread consensus that the state’s forests face a multitude of problems. They range from expansion of invasive plant species to an overpopulation of deer and a decline in habitat for endangered and threatened species.

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

According to estimates prepared by the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, the bill could cost up to $2.7 million to implement, a projection critics fear could lead to increased logging on state-owned lands.

“Is it really about forestry or income?’’ questioned Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who opposed the earlier version as he did past bills on the issue.

“Public support for open-space preservation could wane once people see what is being done on land held in the public trust.’’

Other environmental groups, however, have backed the bill, including the New Jersey Audubon Society, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, and Pinelands Preservation Alliance, among others.

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