Residents Set to Battle State Over the Future of Sparta Mountain

By David Cruz

Sparta Mountain is one of those great Jersey places to take a hike, especially on a beautiful day like today. But a so-called Forest Stewardship initiative by the state Department of Environmental Protection has residents in this small, bucolic community gearing up for a battle to spare their mountain from what they say is a disastrous plan that will do more harm than good.

“This is a closed canopy forest ecosystem, which also provides water to millions of people,” noted Susan Williams, chairperson of the Skylands Group of the NJ Sierra Club.

Williams is one of a handful of locals who have led the fight to stop the DEP from cutting down older trees on the mountain, which the DEP says it has to do in order to create a mix of young and old forest to promote more species diversity and to protect the habitat of certain birds. But opponents of the plan fear a more nefarious goal — the start of commercial logging activities.

“This is really the Trojan Horse,” she said. “When you see these clearcuts. We are in very sensitive, pristine Highlands area. We are a watershed. Our area up here provides water to millions of people down below.”

But the DEP says they’re not looking to make Sparta Mountain a safe haven for commercial logging operations.

“The motivation for why we’re doing this work are definitely not financial,” countered Dave Golden of the Bureau of Land Management at the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. “Our motivation is the benefits that this creates for wildlife and for habitats or for public use; wildlife-related recreation is one of the major missions and functions of the division of fish and wildlife.”

Greg Gorman, the conservation chair of the Skylands Group, shows us some aerial photos of what the clearing of these old trees looks like from above. From this view, open swaths of forest really stand out.

“What we’re saying is that for Sparta mountain, the young forest approach is the wrong approach,” said Gorman. “What we’re saying is rather than have an invasive type approach, do a non-invasive and focus on the closed canopy, which consists of trimming and pruning and thinning out.”

There is a balance to be struck here, say all sides, but residents are very protective of their mountain and the DEP has faced criticism before for being cozy with big business and not especially open about its work in sensitive areas. The Skylands Group says it’s playing a bit of catch up right now but insists it’s watching now, like an eagle, which is a bird that does especially well in a closed canopy environment.