But the plan, which was approved by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission on Oct. 14 and will start in April, has divided environmentalists. Some say it is a reasonable and necessary response to the dangers of wildfires, while others say it is an unscrupulous waste of trees that would no longer be able to store carbon as climate change puts the world at risk.
Enemies are also angered by the potential use of herbicides to prevent regeneration of invasive species, noting that the Pinelands sits atop an aquifer that contains some of the purest drinking water in the nation.
And some of them fear the plan could be a back door to clearing protected forests under the guise of fire protection, despite the state’s denials.
“To save the forest, they have to cut the forest,” said Jeff Tittel, the retired former director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who called the plan “shameful” and “Orwellian.”
Pinelands Commissioner Mark Lohbauer voted against the plan, calling it unwise on many levels. He says it can harm rare snakes, adding that he has researched forestry tactics from western states and believes they are ineffective at preventing major wildfires.
“We are in an era of climate change; it is our duty to do our utmost to preserve these carbon sequestering trees,” he said. “If we don’t have an absolutely essential reason to cut down trees, we shouldn’t do it.”
The plan encompasses approximately 1,300 acres (526 hectares), a minuscule percentage of the 1.1 million acre (445,150 hectares) Pinelands Reserve, which enjoys federal and state protection and has been declared a unique biosphere by the United Nations.
Most trees to be killed are 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter or less, the state said. The dense undergrowth of these smaller trees can act as “ladder fuel,” carrying fire from the forest floor to the treetops, where flames can spread quickly and winds can increase to start fires, the Department of Environmental Protection said in a statement.
A Pinelands commissioner calculated that 2.4 million trees would be removed by using data from the state’s application, multiplying the percentage of tree density reduction by the amount of degraded land.
The department would not say whether it believes the number is correct, nor would it offer its own number. But it did say, “The total number of thinned trees could be significant.”
“This is like liquid gasoline in the Pinelands,” said Todd Wyckoff, chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, as he touched a skinny pine tree of the type that will be felled most often during the project. “I see a forest in danger of fire. I see this as restoring the forest to more of what it should be.”
Tree thinning is an accepted form of forest management in many parts of the country, done to prevent fires from becoming larger than they would otherwise be, and supported by both government foresters and timber industry officials. But some conservation groups say thinning won’t work.
New Jersey says mowing will focus on the tiniest snow-bent conifers, “and an intact canopy will be maintained throughout the property.”
However, the state’s filing envisages that canopy cover will be reduced from 68% to 43% on more than 1,000 acres (405 hectares), with even greater reductions planned for smaller sections.
And skinny trees aren’t the only ones that will be cut down: Many thick, tall trees on either side of some roads will be cut down to create more firebreaks where firefighters can defend against a spreading blaze.
The affected area has about 2,000 trees per acre — four times the normal density in the Pinelands, according to the state.
Most of the felled trees will be ground into wood chips that will remain on the forest floor and eventually return to the ground, the department said, adding: “It is not expected that any material of commercial value will be produced because of this project. ”
Some environmentalists fear this may not be true, that felled trees could be harvested and sold as cordwood, wood pellets, or even used to make glue.
“I’m against removing that material,” Lohbauer said. “That material belongs in the forest, where it supports the habitat and is ultimately recycled” in the soil. “Even if they use it for wood pellets, which are popular for burning in wood stoves, the carbon is released.”
John Cecil, an assistant commissioner with the department, said his agency does not intend to make a profit from wood products that can be removed from the site.
But he said if some felled trees “could be put to good use and generate income for taxpayers, why not do it? If there’s a way to do this that preserves the essential goals of this plan and generates some revenue, it’s not the end of the world. Maybe you can get some poles out of these trees.’
Created by an act of Congress in 1978, the Pinelands District covers 22% of New Jersey’s land area, is home to 135 rare plant and animal species, and is the largest open area on the mid-Atlantic coast between Richmond, Virginia , and Boston. It also contains an aquifer that is the source of 17 trillion gallons (64 trillion liters) of drinking water.
“Cutting down trees in a climate emergency is unacceptable, and cutting down 2.4 million small trees will seriously reduce future carbon storage capacity,” said Bill Wolfe, a former department official who runs an environmental blog.
Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, supports the plan.
The group said opponents use the number of trees to be felled to “incite shock and horror” and say that by focusing on the number rather than the size of the trees to be felled, they are “literally making the trees the miss forest. . The resulting forest will be a healthy native Pine Barrens habitat.”
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