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 environmental officials say the plan to kill trees in a section of the Bass River State Forest is designed to better protect against catastrophic wildfires, adding that it will mostly affect small, skinny trees, not the towering giants for which The Pinelands National Refuge is known and loved.
But the plan, adopted Oct. 14 by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission and set to begin in April, has divided environmentalists. Some say it’s a reasonable and necessary response to the dangers of wildfires, while others say it’s an inconceivable waste of trees that could no longer store carbon as climate change endangers the globe.
Haters are also angry about the possible use of herbicides to prevent the regeneration of invasive species, noting that the Pinelands sits on top of 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 clearing protected forests under the guise of fire protection, despite denials from the state.
“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 reckless on many levels. He says it could harm rare snakes, adding that he has researched logging tactics in western states and believes thinning is ineffective in preventing large wildfires.
“We are in an era of climate change; it is up to us 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 minuscule percentage of the 1.1 million-acre (445,150-hectare) Pinelands Reserve, which enjoys federal and state protection and has been named a unique biosphere by the United Nations.
Most of the trees to be killed are 2 inches (5 centimeters) or less in diameter, the state said. The dense undergrowth of these smaller trees can act as “ladder fuel,” carrying the fire from the forest floor to the treetops, where the flames can spread rapidly and the wind can pick up to fan the flames, said the state Department of Environmental Protection in a statement.
A Pinelands commissioner estimated 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 did not say whether it believes that number is accurate, nor did it offer a number of its own. But he did say that “the total number of trees felled could be significant.”
“This is like liquid gasoline in the Pinelands,” said Todd Wyckoff, chief of the New Jersey Forest Service, as he touched a scrawny pine of the type that will be cut most 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.”
Tree thinning 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 might otherwise, and is supported by government foresters as well as of officials in the timber industry. But some conservation groups say slimming down doesn’t work.
New Jersey says the cut will focus on the smaller snow-bent pitch pines, “maintaining an intact canopy throughout the site.”
The state’s request, however, envisions that canopy cover will be reduced from 68% to 43% over more than 1,000 acres (405 hectares), with even greater decreases planned for smaller sections.
And stunted trees aren’t the only ones that will be cut down: many tall, thick trees will be cut down on both sides of some roads to create more firebreaks, where firefighters can fend off a spreading fire.
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 felled 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 material of commercial value is anticipated to be produced due to this project. ”
Some environmentalists fear that this is not true, that felled trees could be harvested and sold as firewood, wood pellets or even used to make glue.
“I oppose the removal of any part of that material,” Lohbauer said. “That material belongs in the forest where it will support the habitat and will eventually be recycled” into the soil. “Even if they use it for wood pellets, which are popular for burning in wood stoves, that releases carbon.”
John Cecil, the department’s assistant commissioner, said his agency is not looking to profit from any wood products that may be removed from the site.
But he said if some felled trees “could be put to good use and generate revenue for taxpayers, why not do it? If there’s a way to do this that preserves the essential goals of this plan and generates some revenue, that’s not the end of the world. Maybe you could get a couple of fence posts out of these 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 species of plants and animals, and is the largest open space on the mid-Atlantic coast between Richmond, Virginia, and Boston It also includes an aquifer that 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 severely 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 are using the number of trees to be cut “for (causing) 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 for the trees”. . The resulting forest will be a healthy Pine Barrens habitat.”