With visions of fires past and present, N.J. debates forest management

From the Batsto tower, observer Brian Christopher reports on a fire in the Wharton State Forest, on the border of Burlington and Atlantic Counties. Dozens of acres were burning Thursday at the Goshen Pond camp area.
From the Batsto tower, observer Brian Christopher reports on a fire in the Wharton State Forest, on the border of Burlington and Atlantic Counties. Dozens of acres were burning Thursday at the Goshen Pond camp area. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff)
Posted: July 07, 2012

The devastation from the forest fires was unlike any in New Jersey since record-keeping began in 1906.

Miles of woodland were blackened - 183,000 acres in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Ocean, Atlantic, Hunterdon, Somerset, and Middlesex Counties.

Nearly 400 homes and buildings were reduced to ashes and seven people were killed in wind-driven fires over three days in April 1963.

The blaze was never forgotten by New Jersey officials, who have been reminded of it again by deadly wildfires in Colorado and are working to improve management of nearly two million acres of state-owned or -supervised forests to avoid a similar disaster.

Last week, the state Senate passed a controversial bill that would inventory woodlands and permit cutting trees on public land and selling the wood to pay for the program.

The state Department of Environmental Protection would choose a contractor to oversee the effort, plan the logging, and get the best price for the timber.

The bill has been referred to an Assembly committee, which is expected to act in September or October.

"Our forests in New Jersey are becoming extremely dangerous," said Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex-Somerset), sponsor of the bill. "They're not properly managed.

"There's been three to four decades of neglect," he said.

Conservationists, ecologists, certified foresters, scientists, and politicians agree the woodlands are under attack from fire, insects, disease, invasive plant species, and deer.

They don't agree on how to address the problems. Smith's bill went through at least 10 hearings and years of debate.

Opponents say the measure would lead to forest areas being cleared for the staging of heavy equipment, trucks running over streams, logging on environmentally sensitive lands, erosion, and pollution.

They also say it does nothing to stop deer from feeding on new growth after forest thinning or to prevent nonnative plants from taking over when the forest canopy is opened and lets in more sun.

"They can't see the forest for the trees they want to cut down," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "The bill is more about justifying logging on public lands than real stewardship of our forests."

The need to take action has become urgent in recent years, according to the bill's supporters, because of the advancing Southern pine beetle, which has killed thousands of acres of trees in New Jersey, transforming them into tinder.

Mountain pine beetles have killed tens of millions of acres in the Western United States and Canada. Many areas affected by fires in Colorado had not been adequately managed by thinning and controlled burns and were ready to ignite during the drought there, foresters say.

"If you talk to people in Colorado, they will tell you the beetles have devastated their forest," Smith said. "As a result, they have a huge fuel load."

From Jan. 1 to June 30, 839 blazes destroyed more than 2,600 acres of forest in New Jersey, compared with 448 fires and 640 acres burned in the same period last year, said Mike Drake, acting state fire warden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. In the first half of 2010, 636 blazes were reported and more than 2,500 acres affected; in the previous year, there were 598 fires and more than 1,000 acres burned.

Late Thursday, dozens of acres were burning at the Goshen Pond camp area in Wharton State Forest on the border of Burlington and Atlantic Counties, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said. About 100 acres were expected to burn, including backfires set to contain the blaze.

"I do have concerns that we could have another Colorado here," Drake said. "In 1963, the fuels were the same [as now] in New Jersey. What's changed since then is the amount of development . . . a lot more homes."

The 1963 fires "burned 4 percent of the land mass of New Jersey," he said. "We're taking proactive steps now" to avoid a similar blaze.

The fire service maintains forest roads, conducts controlled burnings to eliminate brush, thins the forest, and creates 200-foot buffers around developments.

Its work has left some DEP officials to wonder why Smith's bill is needed and why it requires forest-management plans to be reviewed by a party outside state government to ensure they are environmentally sensitive.

"We believe we manage the forest well," DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said.

The Senate proposal has gained the support of nationally recognized certified foresters such as Bob Williams, of Land Dimensions Engineering in Glassboro, who manages private forests in New Jersey and Maryland. The bill forces the state's executive branch to develop a stewardship plan instead of simply reacting to crises, he said.

"Other states, including Pennsylvania and Maryland, have forest-management plans," Williams said. "Private landowners in New Jersey are required to have plans, too."

State forests don't have one. "What we have is a tinderbox," Williams said.

"With fuel loads, winds, and low humidity, the forest is ready to go," he said.

The state could begin with modest efforts intended "to demonstrate the positive impact" of stewardship practices, Williams said. There's nothing wrong with using wood from New Jersey's forests, he added.

"I went to an Acme last week and saw a huge box of firewood from Estonia," Williams said. "How does cutting forests in Estonia and shipping the wood to America reduce the carbon footprint and lessen pollution?"

Another bill supporter is the New Jersey Farm Bureau, a nonprofit member organization of more than 11,000 farmers and others in agriculture-related activities.

"We have a lot of farmland near forests," said Ed Wengryn, research associate with the bureau. "If you have invasive species and deer on state land, it affects you."

Opponents of the proposed legislation say the bill not only does not address those concerns but undermines public confidence.

"When the people of New Jersey see logging trucks pulling big oaks out of the forest, they won't vote for more open space, because they'll think you just want to log it," said Tittel, of the Sierra Club.

"The timber on these lands is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and we are concerned that the public will lose out both environmentally and financially under the proposed program."

In the past, according to the Sierra Club, the state has received $75 for felled oaks that sold on the market for more than $2,000 each.

"Some forests are healthy and you let nature take its course. Others need more management," Tittel acknowledged. "You need to take out invasive species, fence in some areas to keep the deer out, and sometimes do selective cutting.

"If you see a black locust growing next to an oak, you may want to take it out," he said. "The oak keeps the canopy in place."

Taking no action is dangerous, Williams said.

"I was 12 in 1963 when the big fire occurred," he said. "My father took me out to our hunting grounds and I'll never forget standing on a hillside and looking across five or six miles where everything was burned to the ground.

"The forests came back, but many of those forests now have thousands of homes in them," he said. "We have to take action now. This is not just a New Jersey or Colorado crisis; it's a national crisis."

Contact Edward Colimore

at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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