by Steve Kallesser, CF, Division chair

The New Jersey Division of the Allegheny Society of American Foresters (NJDSAF) is the professional society for all foresters and forest conservationists in this state.  NJDSAF is not an industry group.  Our foresters work for a wide variety of employers, including state forestry and wildlife agencies; state and county park systems; urban and community forestry; research and academia; nonprofit conservation organizations including land trusts and wildlife-focused organizations; and consulting foresters, who work with large forest landowners, farmers, corporations, hunting clubs, and family forest landowners. Our members choose SAF as their professional society because they care deeply about the perpetuation of a healthy forest ecosystem in New Jersey.

For more than a year, we have been exceedingly concerned regarding the rhetoric surrounding the proposed Forest Stewardship Plan for Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

Baltimore oriole feeding at wildlife management area at SMWMA.

We supported — and continue to support — the Forest Stewardship Plan for that WMA for many reasons, including that it recognizes that the oak-dominated forests of the New Jersey Highlands are dynamic, disturbance-dependent ecosystems.  Sparta Mountain WMA, in particular, is a critical reservoir of biodiversity that must be maintained through prudent disturbances that either mimic the natural disturbances that caused these forests to develop over time, or allow the proper functioning of ecological processes in a changing world. We support the numerous references to the ecological principles as work on this WMA, including fire (or disturbances that mimic prescribed fire), and the resulting changes in light levels reaching lower into the forest structure and effects on species composition.  Our full comments to the DEP Division of Fish & Wildlife can be read by clicking here: https://njforests.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Sparta-Mountain-WMA-Comments-NJDSAF.pdf.

We have refuted — and will continue to refute — inaccurate statements about this Plan and about forestry in general, of which some were as follows:

  • Claim: Forests are being turned into grasslands.  Response: No, and this can be verified by reading the recommendations within the Plan.
  • Claim: Under this Plan, the forest will not regrow due to deer populations.  Response: Prior activity areas are regrowing successfully as described in the Plan.  Even areas of recent activity since the resource assessment was conducted are regrowing successfully.
  • Claim: There was no search done for rare or endangered plants.  Response: No, two searches were conducted by qualified professionals during two different growing seasons, as described in the Plan.
  • Claim: Under this Plan, forestry activities will harm water quality. Response: Forestry activities to benefit wildlife habitat had been going on for years on this property with no reported adverse impacts to water quality, and given that they are regulated by DEP we see no reason why future activities would start harming water quality.
  • Claim: Forest management will harm visitor experiences. Response: These areas are now visited very often given their location.
  • Claim: Forestry activities promoted unauthorized ATV traffic. Response: No, illegal ATV use on public lands is not uncommon in many areas and such illegal use was ongoing on this WMA prior to recent work.

However, in the past two weeks — having gained little traction with those arguments — the discourse presented to the public and policymakers has taken a turn for the worse.

  • Claim: DEP Division of Fish & Wildlife’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program really doesn’t care about maintaining and growing the critical rare, threatened, and endangered species populations on that WMA; rather timber income is the sole motivator.  Response: That is highly unlikely given the rigid professionalism of the wildlife biologists in that office.
  • Claim: Mudslides will be triggered.  Response: No, soil properties were considered as detailed within the Plan.
  • Claim: These forestry practices within the Plan are “experimental” and “unproven.”  Response:  Both the classical silvicultural and ecological forestry techniques being used to perpetuate the forest cover type and promote critical wildlife habitat are not only proven through a large volume of monitoring data, but enough information has been compiled on these activities that Best Management Practices were published years ago.
  • Claim: And lastly, a gubernatorial candidate is claiming that this Plan has not used the results of the Landscape Project.  Response: False, and this can be verified by reading the section of the Plan that covers rare, threatened, and endangered fauna.

As professionals, it is our duty to challenge and correct untrue statements about forestry.  Thus, we have no choice but to oppose any legislation based on any of the above.

Indigo bunting in wildlife management area at SMWMA

To the specific points raised by Sen. Lesniak in advance of his press conference:

  • The exemption for forestry activities conducted in accordance with a Plan approved by the State Forester in Section 30(a)7 of the NJ Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act is not a free pass for forestry.  Instead it recognizes DEP State Forestry Services as the correct regulator for forestry activities within this state.  (Similarly an exemption exists for mining operations conducted under the approval of state and federal mine regulators.)  The Highlands Council and its staff must continue to focus on preventing or regulating conversion of forests to shopping malls and office parks, not duplicating what another DEP agency has been doing for a century.  To read SAF’s position statement on Loss of US Private Forestland, click here.
  • Production of timber income from Wildlife Management Areas is not and has never been an objective, never mind a primary objective.  The management of those lands is for the benefit of wildlife species – nothing more and nothing less.  Getting a Plan or project approved is — justly — an onerous process and we support the professional foresters and wildlife biologists within DEP, so long as they are following state law.  To read SAF’s position statement on Professionals in Public Natural Resource Management Agencies, click here.
  • Not every forestry activity that benefits rare, threatened or endangered wildlife requires the removal and sale of wood.  But if the removal and sale of wood can be done responsibly and in accordance with state and federal environmental laws, and might save the state ~$4,500/acre, we ask why not?  Given just a single project of 10 acres, ~$45,000 is a serious amount of money.  We should know from past experience that if there is not enough funding for endangered species projects, they will not happen.  We want positive outcomes for rare, threatened, and endangered species.  To read SAF’s position statement on Biological Diversity in Forest Ecosystems, click here.

NJDSAF will continue to stand with our partners for the proper care and stewardship of New Jersey’s forests.