New Jersey may kill up to 2.4 million trees in Bass River State Forest to fight wildfires

Up to 2.4 million trees will be cut down as part of a project to prevent major wildfires in the federally protected New Jersey forest, considered a unique environmental treasure.

New Jersey’s environmental officials say the plan to destroy trees in part of the Bass River State Forest is designed to better protect against catastrophic wildfires, adding it will primarily affect affects the small, skinny trees — not the towering giants for which Pinelands National Reserve is known and loved.

But the plan, which was approved by the New Jersey Pine Lands Commission on October 14 and began in April, has divided environmentalists. Some say it’s a reasonable and necessary response to the risk of wildfires, while others say it’s an unconscionable waste of trees that can no longer store carbon like climate change global threat.

Enemies are also upset about being able to use herbicides to prevent the regrowth of invasive species, noting that Pinelands sits atop an aquifer containing some of the purest drinking water in the country.

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

“To save the forest, they have to clear it,” said Jeff Tittel, a retired former director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey, calling the plan “shameful” and “Orwellian.”

Pinelands Commissioner Mark Lohbauer voted against the plan, calling it bad advice on many levels. He says it can harm rare snakes and adds that he has studied forestry tactics from western states and believes that thinning trees is not effective at preventing swarms. big forest fire.

“We are in the age of climate change; It’s our duty to do our best to conserve these carbon-absorbing trees,” he said. “If we don’t have a really necessary reason to cut trees, we shouldn’t do it.”

The plan involves approximately 1,300 acres (526 ha), a very small proportion of the 1.1 million acre Pinelands reserve (445,150 ha), enjoys federal and state protections, and has Named a unique biosphere by the United Nations.

The state says most felled trees are 2 inches (5 centimeters) or less in diameter. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection said in a statement that the bushes of these smaller trees can act as “stair fuel,” carrying fire from the forest floor to the treetops, where the flames can spread quickly. and the wind can be strong enough to fan the flames.

A Pinelands trustee 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 area of ​​land affected.

The department would not say whether it believed the number to be accurate, nor would it release a number of its own. But it did say “the total number of trees thinning can be substantial.”

“This is like liquid gasoline in the Pinelands,” said Todd Wyckoff, director of the New Jersey Forest Service, touching a scrawny pine tree of the kind often cut down during the project. “I saw a forest that was in danger of burning. I see this as restoring the forest back 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 fires from becoming larger than they can be and supported by government foresters. as well as wood industry officials. But some conservation groups say thinning doesn’t work.

New Jersey said the cut will focus on the tiniest pines bent by the snow, “and an intact canopy will be maintained throughout the site.”

However, the state application envisions that canopy cover will decrease from 68% to 43% over more than 1,000 acres (405 ha), with even larger reductions planned for portions of the tree. less.

And skinny trees aren’t the only ones that will be cut down: Many tall, dense trees on either side of the road will be cut down to create more firefighting space where firefighters can fight the spreading blaze.

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

Most of the cut trees will be ground into wood chips that remain on the forest floor, eventually returning to the soil, the ministry added, “This project does not anticipate that any commercially valuable materials will be produced by this project. “

Some environmentalists fear that may not be the case, that the trees that are cut down could be harvested and sold as rope, pellets or even used to make glue.

“I object to the removal of any of that material,” Lohbauer said. “That material belongs in the forest, where it will support the habitat and eventually be recycled” into the soil. “Even if they use it for wood pellets, which are common in wood stoves, they still release carbon.”

John Cecil, an assistant commissioner for the department, said his agency does not seek to profit from any wood products that may be removed from the site.

But he said that if some of the trees cut down “can be put to good use and generate revenue for taxpayers, why don’t we do it? If there’s a way to do this and still maintain the essential goals of this plan and bring in some revenue, it’s not the end of the world. Maybe you can get a few fence posts from these trees.

Created by an act of Congress in 1978, Pinelands County occupies 22% of New Jersey’s land area, is home to 135 species of rare flora and fauna, and is the largest open space on the coast. mid-Atlantic between Richmond, Virginia, and Boston. It also includes an aquifer that supplies 17 trillion gallons (64 trillion liters) of drinking water.

“Tree cutting during a climate emergency is unacceptable and the cutting down of 2.4 million small trees will severely reduce future carbon storage capacity,” said Bill Wolfe, a former department official. , who runs an environmental blog.

Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Conservation Union, supports the plan.

The group said opponents are using the number of trees cut “to (cause) shock and horror,” saying that by focusing on the number rather than the size of the trees cut down, they “really are missing the forest because of the tree . The resulting forest will be a healthy habitat for the native Barren Pine.”


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