If 2.4 Million Trees Fall Will Trenton Hear it?

The Gold Dome.

On Oct. 14, as the New Jersey Pinelands Commission named its library for Gov. James Florio, it also voted to execute a “forestry wildfire management plan” that would would remove 90  to 95 percent of the trees in over a 1,000 acre swath through the vulnerable watershed that the State of New Jersey pledged to protect in 1979.

Throughout his career in Washington and Trenton, Gov. Florio was a champion of the environment in general and the protection of the Pinelands in particular. 

“New Jerseyans can take great pride in the preservation of the Pinelands, and it likely would not be possible without Governor Florio,” said Susan R. Grogan, the Commission’s Acting Executive Director in a press release. “Every time anyone steps into our library they’ll be reminded of how much Governor Florio means to the Pinelands and how he fought to protect the region’s remarkable resources.”

MOVING RIGHT ALONG

In the same meeting the panel celebrated naming the library for Florio, they voted  8 to 2 with one abstention on the controversial wildfire mitigation plan. The application was submitted by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Forest Fire Service, which has been around since 1906 and environmentalists contend has been too quick to defer to the timber industry and developers.

“In one of the most shameful moves by the Pinelands Commission, they just  declared war on the Trees in the Pinelands,” wrote Jeff Tittel, the former director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, of the approval. “In an Orwellian move  they approved the cutting of 2.4 million trees to protect the Pinelands from fire. Its twisted logic—if there are no trees left there are no trees that can burn. This is just an excuse to log  2 square miles of public lands  under the ruse of fire safety.

Tittel’s email to InsiderNJ continues. “These lands belong to all of us and are supposed to be protected. The 13 mile long clear cut will open up the Pines to invasive species and ATVs . This will do little to prevent fires and there are already fire breaks and dirt roads that act as breaks in the area. Pretty soon we will have to rename the Pinelands the Stump Lands.”

In a detailed response to an InsiderNJ query, The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Forest Fire Service and Forest Service stood by the Allen and Oswego Road Fire Mitigation and Habitat Restoration project— “the primary goal of which is to mitigate the risk of severe wildfire or southern pine bark beetle outbreak in an overly dense pine forest.”

BADLY NEEDED 

“The fire break operation will include a 25-foot clearing on either side of the road,” wrote NJDEP spokesperson Caryn Shinske. “Across the  project, the goal is to stop the spread of fire by removing dense undergrowth and preventing fire from getting into the treetops where wind can rapidly spread and intensify fire. In addition to fire safety, this project also restores the forest to a more typical condition which is preferred by native plants and animals. Tree removal will focus on the smallest snow-bent pitch pine trees first, and an intact canopy will be maintained across the site.”

According to the NJ DEP, “the area of forest proposed for this project has a long history of major wildfires, including the Bass River Fire of 1977 which killed four firefighters. Most recently, a wildfire in 1999 primed the area for regeneration of the current and tremendous tree density.”

The Pinelands is composed of parts of 53 municipalities in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Ocean counties. According to the Pinelands Commission, it is “the largest body of open space on the mid-Atlantic seaboard between Boston and Richmond” that “provides refuge to 135 threatened or endangered plant and animal species. The region is home to an aquifer system that contains an estimated 17 trillion gallons of water.”

To get a context for the scale of the wildfire management project consider that Central Park is 843 acres. The project includes a 13 miles long forest firebreak and extends Bass River Township and Little Egg Harbor. 

Based on the piercing questions from some of the Commissioners, there remains serious questions about the NJDEP’s approach. Perhaps most alarming, was the critical line of questioning about the application from Commissioner Doug Wallner, the Burlington County representative, an apparent subject matter expert.  

AH, WHY?

According to his bio, he retired from the National Park Service in 2012, “having served for 34 years in a variety of natural resource and fire management positions. He worked in both small and large parks before ending his career in the regional office in Philadelphia as the Regional Fire Management Officer. As such, he provided leadership for agency fire programs in the 13 northeastern states. He worked closely with state fire programs and departments of environmental protection, including the New Jersey State Fire Warden and others.” 

“It seems like its a given” in the application that “a wildfire is of consequence here, so I guess I would like to see some fleshing out of why, other than just reducing the fire hazard—what is the consequence—I didn’t see any communities nearby or the things that are significantly threatened by an extreme wild there—What’s threatened?”Wallner questioned. 

According to the on-line video recording of the Oct. 14 meeting, Wallner was told  by an off-camera Commission staffer that he could not “provide the details” he requested. The staffer went on to concede the staff of the Pinelands Commission lacked the subject matter expertise to actually evaluate the massive project being advanced by the NJDEP. 

Wallner, citing the lack of information that was forthcoming,  abstained.

At least one panel member, Commissioner Mark Lohbauer was concerned that the NJ Forest Fire Service strategy, which included fully harvesting the timber off the land, was ignoring the latest research in climate science that indicated it was best practice to preserve and protect “the carbon sequestration power that our forests represent to our state.”

CARBON WHO?

Lohbauer, who voted “no”, called the NJDEP’s proposal “an affront…to preserving forests and the carbon sequestration power they have” observing that at the very least, the felled trees should be left in place to decompose and provide habitat to the long list of endangered species the unique region shelters.

According to his bio, Lohbauer, an attorney,  was the Director of Policy & Communications for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and was a former Assistant State Treasurer. He was on the Pennsauken Township Committee as well as the Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders. As a veteran environmental activist he has promoted alternatives to waste incineration. 

During the public comment period of the Commission’s hybrid meeting Bill Wolfe, a retired DEP planner and former Policy Director of Sierra Club raised multiple objections as did Georgina Shanley, with Citizens United for Renewable Energy.

In a letter to Gov. Murphy, Wolfe urged the Governor to veto the minutes of the Pinelands Commission, which would put a stop to the controversial wildfire mitigation project

“I support the intent of your Executive Orders with respect to addressing the climate crisis and steeply and rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions to achieve the goals of the Global Warming Response Act in light of the most recent science,” wrote Wolfe. “Sadly, I must bring to your attention the fact that these goals and policies have been ignored by State agencies that are bound by these Executive Orders.”

Wolfe’s letter continues. “There was no analysis conducted by the DEP or the Pinelands Commission with respect to the climate implications of this massive logging, in terms of carbon storage, carbon sequestration, and greenhouse gas emissions. The DEP’s forest management and the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan do not include any standards or review requirements that consider climate issues or the science of forest management for carbon storage and sequestration.”

The former NJ DEP official wrote that “the DEP’s ‘Forest Management Plan’ and the Pinelands Commission’s approval of it make a mockery of the intent of your Executive Orders on climate, as well as conflict with the carbon storage and sequestration science and data of DEP’s own ’80 X 50 Climate Report'”. 

“In addition to blocking this decision, you should also direct DEP and the Pinelands Commission to revise the Plan in light of climate science and the goals of the Global Warming Response Act and your Executive Orders,” Wolfe wrote. “Ideally, both Agencies should revise their policies and regulations to reflect these objectives as well….The ecological and climate values of those forests must not be sacrificed by narrow minded plans or the negligence and neglect of NJ State government agencies under your watch.”

Wolfe concluded by observing the Pinelands “are a unique ecosystem that have been recognized by the UN as a World Biosphere Reserve and by Congress as the nation’s first National Reserve. Recently deceased NJ Congressman and former Governor Florio was the sponsor of that Legislation.”

THE ROAD OF ‘INTENTIONS’

Back in 1979, the New Jersey State Legislature declared the Pinelands a unique array of pine-oak forests, cedar swamps, and “extensive surface and ground water resources of high quality” which provided “a unique habitat for a wide diversity of rare, threatened and endangered plant and animal species” worthy of protecting.  

Moreover, it warned in the legislation that set the region aside, the very “viability” of  its “unique” natural resources was so seriously “threatened” by the pressures from development that protecting it’s resources was in “the interests of the people of this State and of the Nation.” 

In the legislation it defined the risks to the priceless region from “residential, commercial and industrial development” but it failed to anticipate how vulnerable it could be if the entity Trenton created to protect it lacked the expertise and the courage to protect it.

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14 responses to “If 2.4 Million Trees Fall Will Trenton Hear it?”

  1. Too much environmental reportage in New Jersey is rote and incurious, dependent on the same, entrenched, partnered sources. Great piece

  2. Excellent article describing the proposed massacre of the Pinelands by the people designated to protect, preserve and enhance it. Governor Murphy must step up to the plate and send it back to the scientists and experts in our changing climate, and the unique ecosystem of the vulnerable Pines so that he can forward the legacy of Byrne and Florio. Shame on NJDEP and the corporate enviro groups who support this action. If it is permitted to proceed their names will go down in infamy. Governor Murphy, you are given this unique opportunity to rise above politics and fill the shoes of Florio and Byrne and do not approve this plan.

  3. I hope it is visited hundreds of more times to prevent the adoption of ill-considered damage to the Pine Lands.

  4. I hope a comprehensive and astute environmental impact study will be planned that includes how the sensitive ecosystems will be affected, particularly with regard to the many endangered species habituating in the pines and the vastly important aquafer, to name only a few critical concerns. It is also fact that the prevalent species of pine requires periodic wild fires in order to release it’s seed. I simply do not believe the DEP or Pinelands Commission has the full knowledge and expertise to to develop such a management plan. I also have to wonder who might really benefit from such a plan. Not the Pinelands I suspect.

  5. And these are the same people who support the lawsuit filed yesterday by the DEP Commissioner, the AG & director of CA, claiming the oil industry failed to prevent & inform consumers about climate change over the last 50 years, yet they have no quarrels about cutting down trees that sequester the “greenhouse gas” carbon dioxide. Seems that they don’t know their science, or at least aren’t following it, as we continue to see forests cut down to accommodate shopping centers, parking lots, housing, etc. And, now an attack on the pinelands. In my schooling, I learned that fire is actually GOOD for the pinelands, since it subdues the growth of deciduous trees & helps spread the seeds of the conifers (this is why they do controlled burns). Maybe the forest fire service wants a reduction in fire so they work less. Will our taxes be reduced as a result? Keep the trees, do more regular burning & lets get off the climate change bandwagon.

  6. Bob – good piece – but DEP Forest Fire people are flat out lying:

    “an intact canopy will be maintained across the site.”

    Not true. The Pinelands Commission approval – which I quoted at length – documents huge reduction in canopy, which will bring in sunlight and exposed soils that attract invasive plants (logging that opens the canopy and increases sunlight on the forest floor also dries out the forest soils and vegetation and creates less wind resistance, thereby making wildfires far worse!). Here is the Commission’s approval document (my emphases):

    “Approximately 1,041 acres of pine-dominated forest type will be thinned twice. The applicant proposes that this acreage will be “thinned low and from below.” This type of thinning cuts and removes those trees that are the shortest in height and smallest in diameter. The applicant indicates that these trees generally act as forest fire “ladder fuels” by connecting the plants and shrubs on the ground with the upper canopy of taller trees. The proposed “low and from below” thinning will reduce the forest from 2,075 trees per acre to 204 trees per acre. Canopy cover will be reduced from 68% to 43%.

    [Note: that density reduction is a 90% tree removal rate, for a total of 1,947,711 trees.]

    Approximately 255 acres of pine-shrub oak forest type will be subject to a variable density thinning treatment. This thinning will reduce the forest from 1,940 trees per acre to 74 trees per acre. Canopy cover will be reduced from 74% to 30%.

    [Note: that density reduction is a 96% tree removal rate, for a total of 475,830 trees.]

    Approximately 8 acres of pine-shrub oak forest type along the western outside edge of the Allen Road firebreak will be subject to a “feathered” variable density thinning treatment. The applicant indicates that this type of thinning creates a gradual transition in tree density from zero trees per acre created by the proposed forest firebreak to 33 trees per acre for a distance back from the proposed forest firebreak of 75 feet. Canopy cover will be reduced from 74% to 19% by the “feathered” variable density thinning treatment. The applicant indicates that this “feathered” treatment is intended to reduce the harsh forest edges and create a more visually appealing aesthetic between the proposed forest firebreak and the variable density thinning treatment.”

    Links here:
    http://www.wolfenotes.com/2022/10/pinelands-commission-approves-massive-dep-clearcut-logging-project/

  7. Why does this feel like the national Western/Southern Republican assault on forest preservation on the grounds of thinning and reducing ground litter which is hotly disputed, certainly on the parameter of what’s best to slow global warming. All done in the name of fire safety which is, at the macro level of causation driven by the global climate forces that the Republican Right denies as a matter of political catechism. ( I better watch out for those Catholics on the Supreme Court).
    It’s a pretty damning question – the nerve – to ask: were there any threatened communities or infrastructure in the area being “treated”? Apparently not.
    What’s the end use of all this cutting and shredding? Mulch? Who’s selling and who’s buying, if anyone?
    Are these “products” going into wood pellets for use in certain custom designed wood stoves?
    Maybe the Ukraine could use some of the combustible material, I see it is going to have a tough winter.

    I’m too far away from the scene to speak with authority on what is going on, but it has the smell to me of the national discussions on wildfires, causes and prevention which, while denying always that they are about politics from the Right wing side of the spectrum, seem to me to be immersed in slanted discussions of political economy, who owns what, regulations, federal persecution of striving land owners and potential fire victims…Federal overreach in short, with the environmental side usually conceding to the powerful national “southerly winds” – aided by the national corporations shift to the right since the 1970’s. One of the reasons I no longer work for NJ Audubon and haven’t been back to NJ since I resigned as Director of Conservation in the summer of 2001.

  8. Nice article, however Sparta Mountain and the Violation of the NJ-Highlands Core Protection Area which began with Governor Christie was not mentioned. The excuse to violate this region, was logging to create habitat for the yellow-winged warbler. Managing a forest for one species is ridiculous . The goal of this new task force appears to be justifying continued logging under the guise of climate resilience, as the science is diminished by allowance of Public Forest being given to private loggers, as if enough trees are not already lost to other sources. Proforestation the required new paradigm is not mentioned in the Task Force’s vocabulary.

  9. The fact the NJFTF is not capable of a Moratorium on all logging or preventing future logging contracts already in place is also disturbing. WHY Take trees from Public Forest, for private interest. Maturing trees sequester carbon from atmosphere free of charge. The tree removal with heavy machinery spreads invasive species and trees especially oaks will not regenerate due to deer browse, white tail deer another NJFGW disaster one species over all.

  10. Politics and Science must become one. Public Forest “Remaining”, must not be logged, for any purposes including cannibalization of it’s own entrusted resources for it’s own budget shortages The Proposed NJ Forest Service direction into a Logging Enterprise within the Public Forest is a clear violation of it’s Public Trust; into an improper sphere of privatization and theft of the Public’s Natural and Rightful Heritage. This is not management but an attempt at legalized theft of the common.
    So Finally a common geopolitical dynamic; Climate change that can unite US; Life or Death, Science or Political garbage. shall we chose the political inappropriate paradigm of business over science.
    There can be no compromise with obsolete forestry of the past, aka Silva Culture, and certainly inappropriate for NJ’s Forest remaining.

  11. Nick H is exactly tight.

    Bob, today the AP published this story you broke – it went national.
    Yes, I am “shocked and horrified” that Carleton Montgomery and PPA would support such a destructive and ill advised plan.

    Worse, Pinelands Commissioner Wallner, a retired US Forest Service wildfire expert, said the plan had no justification in terms of reducing wildfire risks because there were little or no people and property anywhere near the logging and “firebreak”.

    Recent science demonstrates that “thinning” is not only ineffective (does not work), it makes wildfires even WORSE, by allowing sunlight to spur the growth of combustable plants, dry out vegetation making them more combustable, and increase wind which also dries out vegetation and fans the flames, make wildfires faster and hotter.

  12. What is the latest development on this article. Don’t understand what the Pine Land Commission is doing. Please file me in on the latest.

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