New Jersey’s Wildlife Management Area system preserves an array of fish and wildlife habitats throughout the state. Glassboro Wildlife Management Area is located off Fries Mill Road in Clayton NJ (Gloucester County).
In early February 2023, nineteen acres of mature oak forests in Glassboro Wildlife Management Area (WMA) were destroyed by the state in order to create habitat for the American woodcock. The majority of destruction occurred in wetlands and wetlands transition areas that are supposed to be protected from this kind of activity. This included mature shortleaf pines and swamp chestnut oaks, as well as two rare plant populations.
‘Forestry’ is generally defined as the science or practice of planting, managing, and caring for forests. In New Jersey, this term is widely applied to label many destructive activities—including clear-cutting—as permissible ‘forestry’ practices; however, what transpired in Glassboro is too extreme to qualify for even this overly-generously categorization. This was land conversion, because the stumps were removed and the pristine, ancient soils beneath were bulldozed. If proper procedures had been followed, this never could have received a forestry plan approval or have obtained a general permit for wetland habitat restoration.
Mature forest was being converted to grassland to create habitat for the American Woodcock— this is a species of “low conservation concern”, so the goal of this habitat-creation was simply to create more game-hunting grounds. For this additional recreation opportunity, New Jersey has paid a steep price—both ecologically, and financially.
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) staff initially wrote off the concerns of conservation groups, describing the destruction as the “restoration and expansion of previously existing fields targeted for meadow/pollinator mix and scrub/shrub habitat.” They justified their actions as being “well vetted through our internal review process (LMR) and Jason Hearon and staff coordinated the project in close coordination with the Forest Service.” DEP staff have started to shift their position on this issue, informally acknowledging that mistakes were made; we are still waiting for an official statement and formal investigation of the matter.
The damage has been done, but we can make sure that this can’t happen again. We intend to hold DEP accountable, and to get relevant legislation and rules passed. This blunder comes on the heels of a forestry task force report that called for greater accountability for all forestry plans. This project should have been subjected to a 14-step public review process. If given the opportunity, local experts could have suggested more suitable plots of land for Woodcock habitat-creation that would not have required the destruction of wetlands. It is essential that the recommendations of the forestry task force be codified through legislation. Furthermore, it is important that these laws and subsequent rules be authored by a science commission with deep knowledge of the underlying science.
The NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) suspended this project on March 10, 2023 after receiving complaints from the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Pinelands Preservation Alliance, South Jersey Land and Water Trust, and Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River. This debacle has since garnered national attention. Although the destructive plan originated from within the NJDEP, agency officials have vowed to investigate the case like any other violation. NJDEP issued a violation notice to its own Department of Fish & Wildlife on April 6; from this date, the Fish & Game’s Bureau of Land Management will have 30 days to submit a restoration plan. The public will then have the opportunity to provide comments on the plan.