As many as 2.4 million trees will be cut down as part of a project to prevent major wildfires in a federally protected New Jersey forest that has been declared a unique environmental treasure.
New Jersey environmental officials say the plan to kill trees in a section of the Bass River State Forest is designed to better protect against catastrophic wildfires, adding that it will mostly affect young, emaciated trees — not the towering giants that Pinelands National Park is famous for and beloved.
But the plan, which was adopted Oct. 14 by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission and is set to begin in April, has divided environmentalists. Some say it’s a reasonable and necessary response to the dangers of wildfires, while others say it’s an unreasonable waste of trees that can no longer store carbon as climate change threatens the world.
Opponents are also alarmed by the potential use of herbicides to prevent a resurgence of invasive species, pointing out that the Pinelands sits above an aquifer that contains some of the purest drinking water in the country.
Some fear the plan could be a back door to logging protected trees under the guise of fire protection, despite state denials.
“In order to save the forest, they have to cut down the forest,” said Jeff Tittle, a retired former manager of the New Jersey Sierra Club, calling the plan “shameful” and “Orwellian.”
Pinelands Commissioner Mark Lohbauer voted against the plan, calling it unwise on several levels. It can harm rare snakes, he says, and adds that he has researched forestry methods from western states and believes tree thinning is ineffective at preventing large wildfires.
“We are in an era of climate change. It is our duty to do everything we can to conserve these trees that sequester carbon. “If we don’t have a completely intrinsic reason to cut down trees, we shouldn’t be doing it.”
The plan includes about 1,300 acres (526 ha), a tiny fraction of the 1.1-million-acre (445,150 ha) Pinelands Preserve, which has federal and state protection and has been designated a Unique Biosphere by the United Nations.
The state said most trees to be killed were 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter or less. The state Department of Environmental Protection said in a statement that the dense undergrowth of these small trees can act as “ladder fuel,” carrying fire from the forest floor up to the treetops, where fires can spread quickly and winds can intensify to start fires.
The Pinelands Commissioner calculated that 2.4 million trees will be removed using data from the state app, and multiplying the percentage of tree density reduction by the amount of land affected.
The department did not say whether it believed that number to be accurate, and would not provide a number of its own. But, she said, “the total number of vulnerable trees can be significant.”
“This is like liquid gasoline at Pinelands,” said Todd Wyckoff, head of the New Jersey Forest Service, touching a fragile pine tree of the kind that will often be felled during the project. “I see a forest that is in danger of fire. I look at this as restoring the forest to the way it should be.”
Tree thinning is an accepted form of forest management in many regions of the country, done in the name of preventing fires from becoming larger than they would otherwise be, and is supported by state forestry officials as well as those of the timber industry. But some conservation groups say the dilution isn’t working.
New Jersey says the felling will center around the youngest snow-bent pine trees, “and an intact canopy will be maintained across the site.”
However, the state’s application envisions canopy cover to be reduced from 68% to 43% on more than 1,000 acres (405 ha), with larger reductions planned for smaller sections.
And it’s not just the lean trees that will be cut down: many thick and tall trees will be cut down on both sides of some roads to create more fire outbreaks, where firefighters can defend against the spread of the fire.
The affected area contains about 2,000 trees per acre — four times the natural density of Pinelands, according to the state.
Most of the felled trees will be ground into wood chips that will remain on the forest floor, eventually returning to the soil, the department said, adding: “It is not expected that any material of commercial value will be produced due to this project.”
This may not be true, some environmentalists fear, that felled trees could be harvested and sold as rope lumber, wood pellets, or even used to make glue.
“I’m against removing any of that material,” Lohbauer said. “These materials belong in the forest where they will support the habitat and are eventually recycled” into the soil. “Even if they’re using it to make wood pellets, which are notorious for burning in woodstoves, it releases carbon.”
John Cecil, assistant commissioner with the department, said his agency is not looking to make a profit from any wood products that may be removed from the site.
But he said if some of the felled trees can be put to good use and generate revenue for taxpayers, why not? If there is a way to do this that maintains the core goals of this plan and returns some revenue, it’s not the end of the world. Maybe you can get some fence posts from these trees.”
Created by an act of Congress in 1978, the Pinelands occupies 22% of New Jersey’s land area, is home to 135 species of rare plants and animals, and is the largest open space on the mid-Atlantic coast between Richmond, Virginia, and Boston. It also includes the aquifer, which is the source of 17 trillion gallons (64 trillion liters) of drinking water.
“It is unacceptable to cut down trees in a climate emergency, and cutting down 2.4 million young trees will severely reduce future capacity to store carbon,” said Bill Wolf, a former administration official who runs an environmental blog.
Carlton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, supports the plan.
The group said opponents are using the number of trees to be felled to “provoke (shock and awe)”, saying that by focusing on the number of trees to be felled rather than their size, they are “literally missing the forest for the trees. The resulting forest will be a native home to the Barrens Pines”.