New Jersey Struggles with Forest Management Policy

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:09/17/2013 Updated:02/09/2016

Last month Governor Chris Christie vetoed the Healthy Forests Act and now people in the state are struggling to find consensus how to manage New Jersey's state forests.

Forest management in New Jersey has been a contentious issue for several years now, but at the end of last month the debate, or what some have described as bickering, rose to a new level after Governor Chris Christie vetoed the Healthy Forests Act.

The bill instructed the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to develop a forest stewardship plan that included selective thinning of forests and selling the timber to cover the costs of the program and additional habitat restoration. Under the bill, all forestry practices would have to follow the guidelines set by, and under the purview of, the Forest Stewardship Council.

This requirement was the primary cause for Christie’s veto, as he explained that under it the DEP would "abdicate its responsibility to serve as the state's environmental steward to a named third party."

Forester evaluating hemlockCertified forester, and a regular on this blog, Robert Williams agrees. “I think if they ever were to do something the state should have the ability to select; first if they wants to be in certification and, second, which programs the State prefers to be in.”

Conservationists are divided on the issue of forest management. On one side, there are organizations like the New Jersey Sierra Club, which advocates a hands-off, preservationist approach to forests (essentially non-management). The other side, which Williams supports, believes that selective tree harvesting is essential to maintaining healthy forests.

I am inclined to agree with the latter. Overgrown and unmanaged forests present many problems. Of greatest concern to humans is an increased wildfire danger, both in terms of frequency and severity. It is simple – more trees and undergrowth (the removal of which should also be a part of any DEP forest management plan) equal more wood and kindling for fires.

Furthermore, sustainable forest management plays a vital ecological role. Tree species like the dwindling Atlantic White Cedar are struggling due to overcrowded forests. The Atlantic White Cedar is a shade intolerant species that needs strong sunlight to grow, and dense forests prevent enough sunlight from reaching them.

Other species are affected too. While most of the eastern U.S. is currently experiencing a revival of ruffed grouse, New Jersey’s population is sharply declining. Although there are several causes, mismanagement of forests is certainly complicit. To thrive, ruffed grouse need more open forests, both for themselves and the small plants and insects that make up their diet. Unfortunately, the plight of the ruffed grouse also does not garner much attention because it is still considered a game species. Williams has written extensively on this issue.

Consider this metaphor: When a historical society buys a building to save a piece of the town’s heritage, they do not just let it sit there unattended as the paint peels off, wood rots and the building falls apart. Instead, they restore what needs to be fixed and conduct regular upkeep to ensure it stays healthy. The former is forest preservation, and the latter is active forest conservation.

In May, the USDA wrote a report, The State and Future of U.S. Forestry and the Forest Industry, improving the forest products industry and providing for the “ecological health of federal forests (including issues of disease and vulnerability to catastrophic wildfire).” Unfortunately, while Williams and I believe that it is a great report, he believes that few will read it and even fewer will make an effort to act on its recommendations.
Photo Credit: New Department of Enironmental Protection

Private landowners are getting the message. Williams regularly works with landowners in developing sustainable forest management practices on their land. “When landowners are given information, selling conservation and forest stewardship seems pretty easy to me. I don’t see any resistance or questioning that we shouldn’t be managing our land.”

In conclusion, the DEP needs to take a hint from the USDA and private landowners in its own state and create a sustainable forestry management plan. It should not need to be directed to do so by the legislature. Their job is to protect New Jersey’s environment, and the active conservation management of the state’s 600,000 acres of forests, which are currently unattended, is an integral part of that.