If the state approves a plan to clear up to 200 acres of trees at the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area, it will move forward without certification by the well-regarded Forestry Stewardship Council.
The New Jersey Audubon Society withdrew from the Forest Stewardship Council application process, meaning it will not have to abide by standards adopted by the group governing how to manage high-value woodlands.
The Audubon Society has angered many other environmental organizations over its plan to log portions of the forest in the New Jersey Highlands, a plan foes says imperils drinking water supplies used by millions of residents.
The dispute focuses on how best to manage protected woodlands — in this case a mature forest of 60-year-old mixed hardwoods. Audubon and state officials argue cutting a small number of acres of trees will allow young forests to develop, enhancing wildlife diversity and creating habitat for birds and other species.
Critics say abandoning efforts to follow the Forest Stewardship Council’s certification, a process the nonprofit had participated in for years, demonstrates the group’s stewardship plan fails to follow the council’s strict standards for forest management.
“You don’t go to a mature canopy forest and turn it into a meadow,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It goes against the Highlands Act, threatens water supplies, and invites invasive species in.’’
John Cecil, vice president of stewardship for Audubon, said the group decided to withdraw from the certification process because it becomes too complicated to manage state property and conform with the FSC standards.
“There’s a lot of noise and unease the Sierra Club is spearheading because they don’t want to see trees cut,’’ Cecil said. The plan being put forward by New Jersey Audubon, he said, addresses issues raised by a U.S. Forest Service Report. “We need to create young, new forest habitat.’’
The plan expands on a smaller effort to create young forests on more than 30 acres in the wildlife management area, a 3,400-acre preserve straddling Morris and Sussex counties. In part, it is designed to create habitat for the golden-winged warbler, a songbird declining in the state.
Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, faulted the plan for having too much of a focus on creating young forests. By withdrawing its bid for certification, Audubon was admitting what groups like hers argued all along: “What they want to do is not ecologically sound,’’ she said.
The plan is expected to be acted on by the state Department of Environmental Protection this spring.