Forest Management Plan in Bass River State Forest is Necessary
Pinelands Preservation Alliance and New Jersey Conservation Foundation have provided input on this plan since 2020.
By Heidi Yeh, Policy DirectorOctober 24, 2022
On October 14th the Pinelands Commission voted to approve a forestry plan by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to be carried out in the Bass River State Forest. The plan includes tree removal in order to improve a fire break along pre-existing roads as well as thinning of specific interior areas to reduce fire risks and promote diversity of the forest ecosystem. Pinelands Preservation Alliance staff and our expert allies have been monitoring this application since its beginning in 2020, all the while providing guidance to DEP and the Pinelands Commission on ways the application needed to change to be acceptable. We provided detailed public comment to DEP and at Pinelands Commission meetings when this matter was discussed. We feel that DEP addressed most of our concerns by making changes in the final plan. Assuming DEP stays true to the plan as approved, we conclude the project will have limited adverse impact on this forest and is a reasonable forest management strategy to protect people and the forest.
Our fundamental criteria for evaluating any forest management proposal on public land are whether it has a legitimate justification, provides for the restoration of native Pine Barrens ecosystems, avoids opening new areas to illegal off-road vehicle driving, and avoids harm to rare species populations. While no plan is perfect, the Bass River State Forest Plan is necessary and will sacrifice some trees to preserve the ecosystem.
Reducing the risks of wildfires to the public and the lives of firefighters is an important and legitimate goal in our fire-prone ecosystem, where people and communities are scattered through the woods and along the edges of State lands. Last summer’s 13,500-acre Mullica River fire should remind us that these risks are very real.
The thinning will actually create the conditions to bring greater diversity than these areas currently have. Unfortunately, there has been some hyperbole in criticisms raised for the first time after the Commission approved the plan. Misleading statistics have been highlighted to illicit shock and horror. 90% tree removal evokes images of barren landscapes. In reality, the forest thinning will occur from the ground up by removing small, crowded trees and reducing the forest canopy only enough to let more light reach the forest floor which is beneficial to plant diversity and growth. The canopy is formed by large trees that will be kept intact, not the scrawny underbrush that will be removed from below. Critics that focus only on the number of trees, but not their size and type, are quite literally missing the forest for the trees. The resulting forest will be a healthy native Pine Barrens habitat.
Along the roadways, trees will be removed on each side of the road in order to establish meadow habitat that improves the roads’ function as defensible fire breaks. The roads themselves will not be widened. The road-side meadows will also be valuable in their own right as native habitat.
The Pinelands Commission asked DEP how the carbon pool will be affected, since trees act as a vital form of carbon storage. This is an important aspect to consider, since the carbon that is locked up in trees could otherwise be in the atmosphere, where it would act as a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. In the 2020 State Forest Action Plan the DEP describes their “carbon defense” strategy, by which an upfront carbon cost (the trees removed through thinning) will enhance the security of the remaining carbon pool by reducing widespread losses due to pests, disease, and wildfire. This approach protects the large canopy trees and their root systems, where most of the carbon is sequestered.
Our criticisms of the original plan centered on the disruption to threatened and endangered species by opening forests and ponds to illegal off-roading and herbiciding. The final plan reflects the changes that we urged DEP to make. The final plan ensures work is done when snakes are away from hibernation sites and avoids creating openings to known hibernation areas and isolated ponds. The improved plan also restricts herbicide use in this area. To address our concerns over the potential disturbance to threatened and endangered bird species, the plan requires that a survey be conducted to identify trees where these birds are nesting, and that these trees be excluded from subsequent removal. Similarly, a 100-foot buffer will be maintained around any wetlands or habitat of the Pine Barrens treefrog. Herbicides in any additional areas will take place by spot treatment and only as a last resort.
The recipe for a healthy Pine Barrens forest includes a necessary dose of forest fire. The trees, plants, and animals found there are adapted to this cyclical renewal of the forest. Humans — with our penchants for building flammable structures near these forests — are not. DEP has been tasked with the difficult challenge of balancing this natural rhythm of fire with the need to protect human lives and property. Fire breaks and thinning not only give defensible lines against uncontrolled wildfires, but they also provide essential boundaries for setting prescribed fires that safely mimic some of the ecological effects of natural fires. The mega-fires burning in the western U.S. testify to the consequences of overly-aggressive fire suppression. The areas designated for thinning are currently crowded with ladder fuels, which – as the name suggests – bring the fire up to the canopy. Modern forestry science advocates that this ladder be cut off to prevent more destructive forms of fire.
Pinelands Preservation Alliance and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation were the only members of the public who provided substantive comments to DEP and the Pinelands Commission during the development and review of this plan. We continuously monitor how DEP is conducting forestry and forest fire practices, and we advocate for the strict adherence to practices that ensure the integrity of the Pine Barrens ecosystem for the long term. We thank those who advocate for protection of Pinelands forests. Disturbance is just as necessary as limited harvest, because we will lose the Pines and rare plants to Oaks and other species unless we have fire and other disturbances that mimic fire. Climate change is a real and imminent threat, and we have to remember that the best way to reduce this threat is by eradicating fossil fuel use as well as inappropriate and unnecessary development. Sacrificing some trees to protect the ecosystem is necessary at times. PPA supports plans that take into account all aspects of Pinelands health and diversity, and welcomes comments based upon science and experience about how best to protect this unique ecosystem.