After years of debate, lawmakers have given final approval to a bill that would offer more opportunity to conduct prescribed burns in New Jersey woodlands.
The bill is viewed as a way to reduce wildfires in the state while promoting the ecological health of forests, particularly those in the Pinelands.
The Senate approved the bill () 38-0 last week without any debate. It now heads to Gov. Phil Murphy for consideration.
“Controlled burns are a critical tool in preventing the type of massive wildfires that have the ability to devastate forest and communities,’’ said Sen. James Beach, a Republican from Burlington County and a sponsor of the bill.
In some woodlands, particularly areas like the Pinelands, fire management plans are needed to ensure healthy forest regeneration, improve wildlife habitat, and control insect populations, according to Beach.
“It absolutely helps reduce the chance of wildfire,’’ agreed Jaclyn Rhoads, assistant executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, which has backed the legislation.
Some conservationists have argued New Jersey lags behind other states, which have passed legislation in recent years to conduct prescribed burns. Those programs have proven to be beneficial and have curbed wildfires.
The state Department of Environmental Protection already conducts limited prescribed burns, but they generally occur only during winter months and are focused on burning off fuel on the forest floor.
The legislation establishes a process for certifying individuals to conduct prescribed burns and authorizes the state Bureau Forest Fire Management to carry out burns in any area of the state it determines in danger of wildfire.
Under the bill, local government officials and others would have to be notified 30 days prior to the burn. Landowners burning on their property need not be certified. The bill also reduces liability for those who conduct prescribed burns.
The bill also authorizes the DEP to charge a reasonable fee to cover the costs associated with the program, with the money being used to help pay for operating and administering forest-fire programs.
“New Jersey’s natural resources are its greatest resources, and they are of the utmost importance to the state’s appearance,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. “In order to protect them we need to control the parts that are deemed a threat to its existence. In the end, prescribed burning is a vital tool to preserve and restore our ecological resources.’’
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, opposed the bill, saying it should have been limited to the Pinelands. “This bill is not about making our forests healthier, but about providing insurance for those people who want to burn their lands,’’ he said.