BASS RIVER TOWNSHIP, NJ (AP) — Up to 2.4 million trees would be felled as part of a project to prevent major wildfires in a New Jersey state-protected forest that is being heralded as a Unique Environmental Treasure.
New Jersey environmental officials say the plan to kill trees in a section of Bass River State Forest is aimed at better protecting against catastrophic wildfires, adding that it will mostly affect small, scrawny trees — not the towering ones Loved by the giants that Pinelands National Refuge is known for.
But the plan, passed by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission on Oct. 14 and set to begin in April, has environmentalists divided. Some say it’s a sensible and necessary response to the dangers of wildfires, while others say it’s a ruthless waste of trees that would no longer be able to store carbon as climate change threatens the globe.
Enemies are also angered by the potential use of herbicides to prevent invasive species from regenerating, noting that the Pinelands sits on an aquifer that contains some of the purest drinking water in the nation.
And some of them fear that, despite the state’s denials, the plan could be a backdoor to cut down the protected forests under the guise of fire safety.
“To save the forest, they have to cut down the forest,” said Jeff Tittel, the retired former director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, calling the plan “shameful” and “Orwellian.”
Pineland Commissioner Mark Lohbauer voted against the plan, calling it unwise on many levels. He says it could harm rare snakes, adding that he has researched forestry tactics from western states and believes they are ineffective in preventing large wildfires.
“We are in an era of climate change; It’s on us to do our utmost to conserve these trees that sequester carbon,” he said. “Unless we have a compelling reason to cut down trees, we shouldn’t be doing it.”
The plan covers approximately 1,300 acres (526 hectares), a tiny percentage of the 1.1 million acres (445,150 hectares) Pinelands Conservation Area that enjoys federal and state protection and has been designated a unique biosphere by the United Nations.
Most of the trees to be killed are 5 cm or less in diameter, the state said. The dense undergrowth of these smaller trees can act as “ladder fuel,” carrying fires from the forest floor to the treetops, where flames can spread quickly and winds can pick up to stoke fires, the state Environmental Protection Department said in a statement.
A Pinelands commissioner calculated that 2.4 million trees would be removed by using data from the state’s application and multiplying the percentage reduction in tree density by the amount of land affected.
The department would not say whether it believes that figure is correct, nor would it offer its own number. But it said, “The total number of trees thinned could be significant.”
“It’s like liquid gasoline in the Pinelands,” said Todd Wyckoff, chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, as he touched a scrawny pine tree of the type most commonly felled during the project. “I see a fire endangered forest. I see this as restoring the forest to what it should be.”
Tree thinning is an accepted form of forest management in many areas of the country, done in the name of preventing larger fires than they might otherwise be, and is supported by both state foresters and timber industry officials. However, some conservation groups say thinning doesn’t work.
According to New Jersey, pruning will focus on the smallest snow-capped pitchers, “and an intact canopy will be maintained throughout the site.”
However, the state’s request calls for the canopy to be reduced from 68% to 43% on over 1,000 acres (405 hectares), with even larger reductions planned for smaller sections.
And scrawny trees aren’t the only ones cut down: Many thick, tall trees on either side of some streets are cut down to create a kind of firebreak where firefighters can defend against a spreading fire.
The affected area has about 2,000 trees per acre — four times the normal density in the Pinelands, the state said.
Most of the felled trees are shredded into wood chips, which remain on the forest floor and eventually return to the soil, the department said, adding: “Material of commercial value is not expected to be produced as a result of this project. ”
Some environmentalists worry that this may not be true, that felled trees could be harvested and used for cordwood, wood pellets, or even to make glue.
“I am against the removal of this material,” said Lohbauer. “This material belongs in the forest, where it supports the habitat and is eventually recycled into the soil.” “Even if they use it for wood pellets, which like to be burned in wood-burning stoves, the carbon is released in the process.”
John Cecil, a deputy commissioner for the department, said his agency does not seek profit from 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 shouldn’t we? If there’s a way to do this that preserves the essential goals of this plan and brings revenue back, it’s not the end of the world. Maybe you could get some fence posts out of those trees.”
The Pinelands District, created by congressional act in 1978, occupies 22% of New Jersey’s land area, is home to 135 rare plant and animal species and is the largest open space on the Mid-Atlantic coast between Richmond, Virginia and Boston. It also contains an aquifer that is the source of 17 trillion gallons (64 trillion liters) of drinking water.
“It’s unacceptable to cut down trees in a climate catastrophe, and cutting down 2.4 million small trees will severely limit future ability 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 that opponents are using the number of trees to be cut down to “[produce]shock and horror” and that by focusing on the number rather than size of trees to be cut down, they are “literally putting the forest ahead.” Miss all the trees”. . The resulting forest will be healthy, native Pine Barrens habitat.”
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