(by Steve Kallesser, vice chair)

A thinning from below, removing a midstory of beech from an oak-dominated forest stand.

A thinning from below, removing a midstory of beech from an oak-dominated forest stand.

As foresters and forest landowners await publication of the rules promulgated under the NJ Forest Stewardship Act, it remains to be seen how many forested landowners will opt out of the traditional requirements of the farmland assessment program in favor of the new alternative requirements resulting from that Act. The removal of the income requirement will likely be a key motivator of forested landowners opting in to the new program. This will be tempered by the lack of regulatory predictability inherent in any new program, and possible negative perceptions by individual municipal tax assessors. Pertinent to this discussion on biomass, a critical question is “How compatible is biomass production and harvesting with the NJ Forest Stewardship Act (and also with traditional farmland assessment)?”

Mechanized harvesting within woodsheds of mills that accept low-grade wood, such as pulp and paper mills, usually focus on projects that meet certain volume requirements for low-grade material, with higher-quality sawlogs being less of a consideration during selection of jobs by loggers. In areas lacking a major buyer of low-quality material, the focus becomes centered on high-quality sawlogs. Given such a lack of a market for low-quality material, foresters’ efforts to conduct harvests in accordance with textbook standards can be frustrated.

At present, given the annual income requirement for traditional farmland assessment and the smaller average property size of privately-owned forestlands, the bias towards thinnings has been towards very light thinnings and crop tree management, as foresters are assuming the need to re-enter an activity area for another light thinning (and resulting sale of firewood) within the next 10-15 years, depending on the size of the property. Such light thinnings would be incompatible with the type of mechanized harvesting through which a stumpage price could be paid to a landowner, but the presence of a biomass market could benefit a landowner (or contractor) with another option for marketing wood. Such light thinnings (or no thinning at all) also promote shade-tolerant regeneration. Indeed, such regeneration is already present in many northern and central New Jersey forests in the form of American beech, black birch, red maple, sugar maple, and black gum, and forest fire fuel buildup is a problem in many areas of the Pinelands.

Assuming that the interests of large forest landowners will align with the regulatory predictability and robust case law afforded by remaining in traditional farmland assessment, management might not change on such properties. Depending on the size of the property, the landowner’s objectives, and the forester, such forests may already be receiving thinning at a rate compatible with commercial, mechanized thinnings.

By removing the annual income requirement, the NJ Forest Stewardship Act has the potential to accomplish two important policy changes. First, it would remove the assumption for the need for reentry to remove additional wood products (firewood), meaning that forest canopy and midstory conditions could be thinned to optimal levels at the landowner’s time schedule, not an arbitrary timetable set by a property taxation law. Such thinnings could be tailored to encourage the type of advance regeneration the landowner so desires.

One possible obstacle to a forest landowner being paid stumpage for a significant volume of low-grade wood is a shortage of loggers with equipment capable of cutting and moving such volumes. Logging contractor behavior regarding capital expenditures is difficult to predict, and may also be based on availability of labor and perceptions of both the business climate and regulatory environment.

The second major policy change of the Act would allow the forest landowner full flexibility to address understory and midstory quality without reference to a need to sell wood products. While cutting 14” or 16” DBH (or larger) red maple or black birch equates to decent firewood volumes for sale, what of 1” or 2” DBH (or smaller) saplings of such species? Have such understory/midstory conditions been fostered or allowed to continue under traditional farmland assessment and thus altering the future composition of the forest? Under new rules of the NJ Forest Stewardship Act – we assume – such understory quality improvements (including exotic invasive species control) would count as qualifying activities, and the lack of income from such activities would not be of concern to the forester and forest landowner.

Thus, it is this author’s belief that adoption of workable rules under the NJ Forest Stewardship Act could provide a clear pathway for forest landowners to market biomass should such a facility be sited in or immediately adjacent to New Jersey. Such wood would be provided through thinnings meant to improve quality for understory flora, including advance regeneration. Although final harvests are difficult to fathom for many of the smaller ownership sizes, such properties could be managed on an uneven-aged system for small group selections as quality advance regeneration develops.

Although some groups heralded the signing of the NJ Forest Stewardship Act as a strike against the need to manage forests under farmland assessment, it is noted that the Division of Taxation, the local tax assessors’ association, and DEP State Forestry Services have all made strong overtures that forestry activities are still required under any new program – in accordance with the article of the NJ Constitution under which the Act is allowed. By recognizing that income from forestry activities is not an annual occurrence, the Act has the potential to improve both the application of silvicultural techniques over time and be compatible with new and developing markets.