NEW JERSEY — Up to 2.4 million trees would be cut down as part of a project to prevent major wildfires in a federally protected New Jersey forest billed as a unique environmental treasure.
New Jersey environmental officials say the plan to cut down trees in a section of the Bass River State Forest is designed to better protect against catastrophic wildfires, adding it will mostly affect small, skinny trees, not the towering giants for which Pinelands National Refuge is known and loved.
But the plan, adopted Oct. 14 by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission and due to begin in April, has divided conservationists. Some say it’s a reasonable and necessary response to wildfire dangers, while others say it’s an inconceivable waste of trees that could no longer store carbon as climate change threatens the world.
Haters are also angry about the possible use of herbicides to prevent invasive species from regenerating, noting that Pinelands sits atop an aquifer that contains some of the purest drinking water in the nation.
And some of them fear the plan could be a back door to logging protected forests under the guise of fire protection, despite state denials.
“To save the forest, they have to cut it down,” said Jeff Tittel, a retired former director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, calling the plan “shameful” and “Orwellian.”
Pinelands Commissioner Mark Lohbauer voted against the plan, calling it rash on many levels. He says it could harm rare snakes, adding that he has studied logging tactics in western states and believes thinning is ineffective at preventing large fires.
“We are in an era of climate change; we need to do everything we can to preserve these carbon-sequestering trees,” she said. “If we don’t have an absolutely essential reason to cut down trees, we shouldn’t be doing it.”
The plan involves about 1,300 acres (526 hectares), a tiny percentage of the 1.1 million acres (445,150 hectares) Pinelands Reserve, which enjoys federal and state protection and has been designated a unique biosphere by the United Nations.
Most trees to be felled are 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter or less, the state said. The dense undergrowth of these smaller trees can act as “scale fuel,” carrying fire from the forest floor to the treetops, where the flames can spread rapidly and winds can rise to stoke the flames, the Department said. state environmental protection. in a statement.
A Pinelands commissioner estimated that 2.4 million trees would be removed using data from the state’s request, multiplying the percentage reduction in tree density by the amount of land affected.
The department hasn’t said whether it believes the number is accurate, nor has it offered a number of its own. But he said “the total number of trees cut down could be significant.”
“It’s like liquid gasoline in the Pinelands,” said Todd Wyckoff, head of the New Jersey Forest Service, as he touched a skinny pine tree of the type that will be cut more frequently during the project. “I see a forest at risk of fire. I see this as restoring the forest to more than it should be.”
Thinning trees is an accepted form of forest management in many areas of the country, done in the name of preventing fires from getting bigger than they otherwise might, and is advocated by government foresters and logging industry officials. But some conservation groups say losing weight doesn’t work.
New Jersey says the cut will focus on the smaller snow-bent pines, “keeping an intact canopy throughout the site.”
However, state enforcement projects that canopy coverage will be reduced by 68% to 43% over 1,000 acres (405 hectares), with even greater decreases expected for smaller sections.
And stunted trees aren’t the only ones being cut down: Many tall, thick trees on both sides of some streets will be cut down to create more firebreaks, where firefighters can fend off 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 wood chips that will remain on the forest floor and eventually return to the ground, the department said, adding, “No commercially valuable material is expected to be produced as a result of this project. “
Some environmentalists fear this is not true, that felled trees could be harvested and sold as firewood, wood pellets or even used to make glue.
“I object to the removal of any part of that material,” Lohbauer said. “That material belongs in the forest where it will support habitat and eventually be recycled” into the soil. “Even if they use it for wood pellets, which are popular for burning in wood stoves, it releases carbon.”
John Cecil, assistant commissioner of the department, said his agency is not seeking to profit from any wood products that could be removed from the site.
But he said if some felled trees “could be put to good use and generate income for taxpayers, why shouldn’t we do it? If there’s a way to do this that preserves the essential goals of this plan and generates revenue, it’s not the end of the world. Maybe you could make a couple of stakes out of these trees.”
Created by an act of Congress in 1978, the Pinelands District occupies 22 percent of New Jersey’s land area, is home to 135 rare species of plants and animals, and is the largest open space on the Mid-Atlantic Coast between Richmond, Virginia, and Boston Also includes an aquifer which is the source of 17 billion gallons (64 billion 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 an environmental blog.
Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, supports the plan.
The group said opponents were using 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 are literally losing the forest to the result forest will be a healthy Pine Barrens habitat.