DEP’s Proposed Stewardship Program Would Help Protect NJ’s Forested Land

State agency hopes to preserve critical tracts of privately owned woodlands by requiring professional stewardship for program participants

The state is proposing broad new rules governing stewardship of privately owned forested land, a measure aimed at keeping more of New Jersey’s woodlands intact.

The program, mandated by a law passed in 2009, encourages the conservation of privately held land as forests, tracts viewed as critical to protecting water supplies, preserving critical habitat for wildlife, and providing recreational opportunities for residents.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is proposing the forest stewardship program at a time when there is an ongoing dispute over management of state-owned land and other forests and whether those activities are enhancing the natural resources there.

Approximately 42 percent of New Jersey’s land is forested, with two-thirds of that in private hands, according to the rule proposal made public on Monday. A study by Rowan University and Rutgers University found that New Jersey experienced a 7 percent loss in upland forests between 1986 and 2007. As early as a decade ago, the state had more acreage of subdivisions and shopping malls than of upland forests, according to the study.

The forest stewardship initiative is designed to complement an existing woodland management program under the state’s farmland preservation program, which has helped nearly 6,000 property owners protect about 234,000 acres by qualifying for a lower assessment on their land. To qualify, an owner must sell $500 of products for the first five acres and 50 cents per acre after that.

To qualify for the new stewardship program, there is no requirement for selling a certain amount of product, but it does impose additional costs on the landowner, including preparing a long-term plan for managing the forest with the help of an approved forester or other professional.

To qualify for the program, a property must have a minimum of at least 10 percent canopy, or be able to achieve that level, according to the proposal. Essentially, the plan’s goal is to manage the forest in such a manner that it is passed on to future generations in a healthy condition.

Toward that end, the forest stewardship plan must be designed to sustain and enhance the productivity of the forests and its ecosystems, according to the rule.

The new rules do not apply to state-owned forests, an omission sure to be questioned by conservationists. A dispute over logging at the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area has divided the state’s environmental community at a time when some fear the Christie administration has gone too far in privatizing parks and other state properties.

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