Fire plan would cut 2.4 million trees from New Jersey’s Pinelands

BASS RIVER TOWNSHIP, NJ — Up to 2.4 million trees would be felled as part of a project to prevent major wildfires in a federally protected New Jersey forest heralded as a unique environmental treasure.

New Jersey environment officials say the plan to kill trees in a section of Bass River State Forest is designed to better protect against catastrophic wildfires, adding that it will primarily affect small skinny trees – not the towering giants that Pinelands National Refuge is known and loved for.

But the plan, adopted Oct. 14 by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission and set to begin in April, has environmentalists divided. Some say it’s a reasonable and necessary response to the dangers of wildfires, while others say it’s an unconscionable waste of trees that would no longer be able to store carbon as climate change threatens the planet.

Enemies are also upset about the possible use of herbicides to prevent invasive species from regenerating, noting that the Pinelands sits atop an aquifer that contains some of the purest drinking water in the country.

And some of them fear the plan is a backdoor to logging protected forests under the guise of fire protection, despite state denials.

“To save the forest, they have to cut down the forest,” said Jeff Tittel, the retired former manager of the New Jersey Sierra Club, calling the plan “shameful” and “Orwellian”.

Pinelands Commissioner Mark Lohbauer voted against the plan, calling it misguided on many levels. He says it could harm rare snakes and adds that he has researched forestry tactics in western states and thinks thinning trees is ineffective in preventing large wildfires.

“We are in an era of climate change; it is incumbent on us to do all we can to preserve these carbon sequestering trees,” he said. “If we don’t have an absolutely essential reason to cut down trees, we shouldn’t do it.”

The plan covers approximately 1,300 acres (526 hectares), a tiny percentage of the 1.1 million-acre (445,150-hectare) Pinelands Preserve, which has federal and state protection and has been named a Unique Biosphere by the United Nations.

Most of the trees to be felled are 2 inches (5 centimeters) or less in diameter, the state said. The dense undergrowth of these smaller trees can serve as “ladder fuel”, carrying fire from the forest floor to the treetops, where flames can spread quickly and winds can intensify. to fan the flames, the state Department of Environmental Protection said in a statement.

A Pinelands commissioner calculated that 2.4 million trees would be removed using data from the state’s application, multiplying the percentage reduction in tree density by the amount of land affected.

The department would not say whether it believes that figure to be accurate, nor would it offer any itself. But he said “the total number of trees thinned could be significant”.

“It’s like liquid gasoline in the Pinelands,” said New Jersey Forest Service Chief Todd Wyckoff, touching a skinny pine tree of the type that will be cut most frequently during the project. “I see a forest threatened by fire. I see this as restoring the forest to what it should be.

Tree thinning is an accepted form of forest management in many parts of the country, carried out in the name of preventing fires from becoming larger than they might otherwise be, and is supported by government foresters as well only by those responsible for the timber industry. But some conservation groups say thinning doesn’t work.

New Jersey says cutting will focus on smaller pitch pines bent by snow, “and an intact canopy will be maintained throughout the site.”

The state’s request, however, calls for canopy cover to be reduced by 68% to 43% over more than 1,000 acres (405 hectares), with even greater decreases predicted for smaller sections.

And the skinny trees aren’t the only ones being cut down: Many thick, tall trees on either side of some roads will be felled to create more of a firebreak, where firefighters can defend against a spreading blaze.

The affected area has about 2,000 trees per acre, four times the normal density in the Pinelands, according to the state.

Most of the cut trees will be ground into woodchips that will remain on the forest floor, eventually returning to the ground, the department said, adding, “It is not intended that materials of commercial value will be produced through this project. ”

Some environmentalists worry that this is not true, that felled trees could be harvested and sold as cordwood, wood pellets or even used in making glue.

“I’m opposed to removing all of this material,” Lohbauer said. “This material belongs to the forest where it will support the habitat and will eventually be recycled” into the ground. “Even if they use it for wood pellets, which are popular for burning in wood stoves, it releases carbon.”

John Cecil, the department’s assistant commissioner, said his agency was not looking to profit from timber products that might be removed from the site.

But he said if some downed trees “could be put to good use and generate revenue for taxpayers, why wouldn’t we do it?” If there is a way to do this that preserves the essential objectives of this plan and brings in revenue, it is not the end of the world. Maybe you could pull some fence posts out of those trees.

Created by an act of Congress in 1978, the Pinelands District occupies 22% of New Jersey’s land area, is home to 135 rare plant and animal species, and is the largest open area on the Mid-Atlantic Seaboard between Richmond, Virginia, and Boston. . It also includes an aquifer which is the source of 17 trillion gallons (64 trillion liters) of drinking water.

“It is unacceptable to cut down trees in a climate emergency, and cutting down 2.4 million small trees will dramatically reduce future capacity to store carbon,” said Bill Wolfe, a former department official who runs a blog environmental.

Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, supports the plan.

The group said opponents use the number of trees to be cut “to (cause) shock and horror”, saying that by focusing on the number rather than the size of trees to be cut, they “miss literally the forest for the trees”. . The resulting forest will be a healthy Pine Barrens habitat.


This story corrects the agency’s name in paragraph 13 to New Jersey Forest Service, not Forest Fire Service.


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