About 25 acres of mature Atlantic white cedars - a threatened species that's been on the decline - were devastated by Sandy in October 2012. Many of the 70-year-old trees were knocked over by high winds because of their shallow root systems in the wetlands. The rest were left vulnerable to future storms and encroachment by other species.
That meant they all had to come down so healthy cedars could reestablish themselves on the same footprint, state officials said. The project, which got underway last week, is overseen by the state Department of Environmental Protection's Forestry Services and was approved by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission.
McLaughlin's large, tank-like harvester clamps onto a tree near the ground, slices through it with a hydraulic chain saw, then strips off the branches in a series of quick moves.
"This is valuable wood," said McLaughlin, operations boss for Advanced Forestry Solutions of Pittsgrove, as a heavy cedar scent permeated the air. "I send it to a North Carolina mill where it's cut and turned into siding, decking and fencing."
Along the road where McLaughlin is working, many trees were already down, thanks to Sandy.
"It looks like pick-up sticks out here," said Bill Zipse, assistant regional forester with New Jersey State Forestry Services. "On the north side, one third of the [cedars] were blown down.
"On the south side, almost all of them are down," he said. "You would have heard a lot of creaking and cracking" during the storm as the trees fell like dominoes, he said.
When trees "are lost along the edges, the others inside are not strong enough to stand up to the wind," said Bernard Isaacson, a state forester. "They're not used to having the wind pressing on them, and that makes them much more likely to be blown down.
"Other species of trees can then take over, and the shade will prevent the Atlantic white cedar from growing," he said.
New Jersey's cedar population once averaged about 115,000 but has fallen off to less than 30,000, initially because of too much logging and later because of hardwood competition, forest fires, and saltwater incursion into wetlands. The trees are primarily in Burlington, Ocean, Atlantic, Cape May, and Monmouth Counties.
Though smaller experimental restoration projects - unrelated to Sandy - have been undertaken at the Wharton and Brendan T. Byrne State Forests, the effort at Double Trouble is the largest.
"It's a good thing what they're doing, but instead of reacting, we have to be proactive," said Bob Williams, a certified forester and vice president of forestry operations for Land Dimensions Engineering in Glassboro. "We have to have a landscape-level management plan for the entire forest.
"Then we can minimize the negative impact of damage from beetles and windstorms," he said. "Maybe this [effort at Double Trouble] could be part of the reemergence of some of the wood-products industry and an example of the need for a public-private partnership."
At Double Trouble, the cedars provided a habitat for timber rattlesnakes and butterflies known as Hessel's hairstreak. But Sandy left many trees blocking or hanging precariously over roads until state forestry and park maintenance crews removed them.
That was just the beginning. The whole 25 acres of trees - the largest contiguous area of cedars affected by the storm in New Jersey - had to be taken down by a logging contractor. Advanced Forestry Solutions got the job with a bid of $15,100 and is likely to finish the work in a month or so.
"I want to be finished before the weather changes and more people are here," said McLaughlin, who has also removed more than 15 acres of cedars from private property in Chatsworth, Burlington County.
His quick logging operation over the next month or so instead of over years will help the trees' tiny conelike seeds germinate undisturbed into seedlings.
Restoration of the cedars at Double Trouble State Park will cost the state about $40,000 for a mesh fence to keep out deer, which feed on the saplings, and to monitor the site over two or three years, Zipse said.
The cedars should reestablish themselves from the countless seeds the trees taken down left behind. A dense growth would crowd out other species.
"If they don't come back, seedlings would have to be planted," Zipse said. "Cedars are a huge part of this area historically."