An estimated 1.8 million acres, or about 42 percent of New Jersey's land, is forested, out of which approximately 38 percent is publicly owned. Much of it is plagued by an overpopulation of deer, invasive species that crowd out native flora, and a decline in habitat for threatened and endangered species.
The legislation has gone through numerous changes over the last few years but has never won final approval. Unlike previous versions, the bill would allow logging in the one million acres protected in the Pinelands.
The latest amendments helped win the support of many conservation groups, but not that of other environmentalists. The changes include development of a proper forestry management plan through limited harvesting and oversight by a third-party certification process.
Under the bill, the DEP would develop a program to provide for the stewardship of forests on state-owned lands in accordance with the standards established by the independent not-for-profit Forest Stewardship Council.
Instead of being a forest harvest program, the amendments make the bill a forest stewardship program, according to Elliot Ruga, a senior policy analyst for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. His organization opposed previous versions of the legislation but backs the new bill.
But Bill Wolfe, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, argued the bill lacked adequate safeguards to protect public lands.
"Just 10 years ago, the Legislature enacted the Highlands Act to prevent fragmentation of forests," he told the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. "It's moving in a completely different direction."
The bill approved by the Assembly committee is sponsored by Assemblyman John McKeon (D., Essex), widely viewed as the biggest environmental stalwart in that chamber. Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), whose companion bill (S. 1085) cleared the full Senate last June, is similarly regarded in the Senate.
Both McKeon and Smith are open to accepting further amendments to the bill, according to Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D., Cape May).
Even with its many critics, both measures were endorsed by some of the more influential conservation organizations in the state, including the New Jersey Audubon Society, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance - as well as the New Jersey Farm Bureau.
According to the bureau, the increased logging, largely abandoned on public land in the last few decades, could revive a strong forestry economy for those in the private sector by driving competition among logging interests.
Any revenue generated from the harvesting would go first to fund the cost of the program, and then to finance restoration projects in forests to increase diversity of species. But opponents said the projected $2.7 million raised by logging may not cover all costs of the program.