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.”
“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.
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.”
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.