A bitter dispute is raging among the state’s most prominent environmental groups over a plan to log hundreds of acres in the New Jersey Highlands, the source of drinking water for more than six million residents.
The controversy revolves around a stewardship plan put together by New Jersey Audubon and the state Department of Environmental Protection that would allow trees to be logged at the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area, a 3,400-acre preserve straddling Morris and Sussex counties and four townships.
Critics of the plan, including the Highlands Coalition, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, and New Jersey Sierra Club, claim clear cutting the mature, more than 60-year-old mixed hardwood trees will open up the forest canopy, allowing invasive species to intrude and increasing the runoff that threatens the water supply used by nearly 70 percent of state residents.
Proponents of the plan counter that it is designed to better manage the publicly funded preserve over the next decade by cutting most, but not all, trees in 10 percent of the forested area, which would allow young forests to develop and enhance wildlife diversity while at the same time protecting water resources.
“It will increase people’s ability to see and understand nature,’’ said John Cecil, vice president of stewardship for New Jersey Audubon, which oversees the wildlife area. For hikers and birders, it will mean a greater chance of experiencing a variety of wildlife, he said. “If we buy this land and don’t manage it, then these trees are going to die.’’
In essence, the dispute focuses on two varied views of how to manage protected forests in an area that has seen natural woodlands dramatically depleted over hundreds of years: thinning out a young forest and denser undergrowth to nurture a variety of wildlife or retaining intact forest expanses, preventing the fragmentation of remaining woodland.
The plan expands a smaller effort to create young forests on more than 30 acres in the preserve, a policy that aimed to create more habitat for the golden-winged warbler, a songbird experiencing rapid declines in the state, with the population dropping from about 100 pairs to approximately 25.
“Who made the decision to manage Sparta Mountain for the golden-winged warbler?’’ asked Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, noting even DEP acknowledges the bird is moving north because of climate change. “The public didn’t spend millions of dollars to protect the golden-winged warbler. Why are we not managing Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area for its water supply?’’
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the stewardship plan for the preserve just part of a pattern of the DEP to privatize public lands for gain, a policy also being pursued at Liberty State Park.