Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Response to NJ Forest Task Force report

New Jersey statehouse, Trenton NJ

Team SRRP member Laura Oltman prepared the following written statement, in reponse to the New Jersey Task Force's final report that was submitted to a joint session of New Jersey's Legislature on February 22, 2023. Laura was an active participant of the yearlong Task Force proceedings in 2022.
SRRP took the position to not sign onto the Task Force recommendations. The following statement outlines our rationale why.

Dear Senator Smith and Members of the Senate and Assembly Environment Committees,

I participated in the NJ Forest Task Force convened by Senator Bob Smith.  I represented a grassroots group that was formed to oppose commercial logging in a 395-acre wooded park in Washington Twp., Warren County.  The park is Roaring Rock Park and the group was originally named Save Roaring Rock Park.  I am extremely pleased to report that public pressure brought the logging operations to a close after the first season of logging.  Now our group is re-named Support Roaring Rock Park, otherwise known as SRRP.  

In that capacity as supporters of Roaring Rock Park, our group is opposed to the task force recommendations as presented at the joint legislative committee hearing on Feb. 22, 2023.  Our experience halting logging in Roaring Rock Park has taught us exactly how easy it is to initiate a commercial logging plan on publicly owned land.

To describe briefly the history of events, after Hurricane Sandy blew down a number of trees in Roaring Rock Park, Washington Township officials investigated removing damaged or blown down trees from the park.  They contacted Green Acres, who funded the purchase of the park, and found that they would need to hire a state-certified forester to create a forestry plan that needed approval from the NJ Division of Parks and Forestry.  The idea languished until a few years ago when it was revived with the idea that the township could realize added income from selling tees in the park.  They hired the forestry firm of Gracie and Harrigan to create a Forest Management Plan that was approved for the park by the NJ Division of Parks and Forestry.  After this approval was gained, it became known that this plan existed and public opposition grew.  The township committee decided to hold a public hearing to explain the plan.  This was after the fact of approval and signing of contracts for logging operations.  As an aside, Gracie and Harrigan not only created the plan but was hired to oversee its implementation.  They were to receive a percentage of the returns on the sale of logs.  They also were charged with hiring a logging company, Heacock Lumber in Ottsville, PA, which was found to be a violation of laws requiring a public bidding process for the logging.  

The first phase of logging began in the spring during nesting season for birds and many other animals.  In addition to this, the ground was very soft and heavy logging equipment severely damaged soil and tree roots, eventually killing a number of standing trees.  Felled trees, and there were many, were filled with nests at this time of year and no one will ever know how many nests were destroyed.  Logging was carried out almost in the water of a tributary to the C1 designated Brass Castle Creek.  Slash was allowed to fall in the water and nothing was done to prevent stormwater runoff or silt from the mud creating by logging equipment to enter this tributary.  Complaints were registered with the Division of Parks and Forestry and a few meager efforts were undertaken after the fact to mitigate some of the damage, but they were by far not the “standard of care” for the damages done.  After the logging operations were completed for the season there were several large rain events that took place, including Hurricane Ida, that washed untold amounts of silt and slash into the water and the Brass Castle Creek.  The forestry plan had stated that logging “should” be done in winter when the ground is frozen or late in the summer when it is more likely to be dry.  Instead logging commenced in spring and was followed by several huge rain events.  The forestry plan called for certain best practices, such as a 65’ buffer along the banks of C1 water and avoiding allowing slash to enter the water, that were not employed.  The plan also advised site remediation after logging, a suggestion rejected by the township government.  So, the minimal safeguards described in the forestry plan were meaningless in practice.

The NJ Highlands Coalition appealed to John Cecil, Assistant DEP Commissioner and head of the Division of Parks and Forestry, pointing out that there are many important public trust resources in this park that were and would continue to be damaged or destroyed by logging.  C1 waterways were at the top of the list, as was wildlife habitat, a rare heritage strain of native and naturally reproducing trout in the fishery of the Brass Castle Creek, flood mitigation provided by the wooded landscape on steep slopes, clean water for drinking and very important was a source of recreation for the communities in Warren County and the State of NJ.  

Mr. Cecil replied that there was nothing amiss about the process that resulted in logging this park and there was no legal bar to it.  Therefore, there was no justification for him to revoke the approval of the logging plan.

It is extremely important for the Legislature to understand that there is no regulation of logging on public land separate from the process created for private landowners to get a tax abatement for an agricultural use of land. Therefore, there is no public hearing process before plan approvals are granted or process for the public to challenge approvals.  This applies to land owned by the public and typically bought to protect it from some kind of unwanted development.  In fact, because logging is legally an agricultural activity, logging operations are exempt from regulations that otherwise protect land being developed and disturbed.

Another key misunderstanding is the purpose of forestry.  Forestry is an agricultural activity which seeks to produce wood products.  Goals include creating the maximum number of the desired or most valuable trees of a size that will produce adequate profit when harvested.  Also, forestry seeks to continue to harvest trees from an area of land into the foreseeable future.  Forestry plans typically last 10 years but can be renewed for decades.  In northeast NJ forests, like those in the Highlands, the typical target species for loggers are oaks and tulip poplars.   Forestry plans seek to created ideal growing conditions for as many oaks and poplars as possible.  Other trees might be harvested for firewood or bio fuels but are not cultivated, as are oaks and poplars.  Any benefits to wildlife from logging would be limited to those species of fauna and flora that can rely mainly on food and shelter provided by oak and poplar trees.  That would exclude the Federally-listed Endangered Indiana Bat, known to live in the bark of shagbark hickory trees, a tree species of little value to foresters that would likely be eliminated from managed forests for use as firewood.  Wildlife would also need to be able to adapt to periodic, indiscriminate removal of large swaths of trees and the damage that occurs in that process.

SRRP cannot support the task force recommendations because they perpetuate logging for profit on public lands in a number of ways.  The task force leaders did not allow any discussion of the exemptions from land use regulation granted to forestry activities.  We and others maintain that the current way the DEP is approving these plans is illegal because it is using a permitting framework that is specifically intended for private property and for tax purposes of private property owners.  That process cannot be applied to publicly owned land, which is not taxed.  These exemptions created significant damages in Roaring Rock Park and also Sparta Mt.

Recommendation 15 of the task force report implies in one sentence that there should be no commercial logging on public lands:

The NJDEP should not include commercial profit as a goal in any forest management plan* on public land. Commercial timber management should not be a goal for any forest management plan on public land.

But in the next sentence says that logging should be allowed on public land for certain undefined purposes:

Wood products can be sold in instances where cutting and removal of wood is a necessary part of an approved plan with ecological health, climate, or other non-commercial goals.

*includes Ecological Restoration Plans, Natural Resource Stewardship Plans or other plans on public forested lands

This statement cements the status quo that the public is witnessing with horror.  The plan to log Roaring Rock Park was approved under the premise that it was intended to improve the health of the forest by thinning the trees.  This same plan, with all its exemptions and profit motives, would still be approvable under Recommendation 15.  This is completely unacceptable.

The task force recommendations do not have any guiding principles or goals.  This is a fatal flaw.  Lots of inventory and planning is proposed, but with no particular purpose expressed.  We believe the unstated purpose of creating a forest inventory is to find areas to log with less likelihood of successful public opposition.  A forest inventory could be an incredibly valuable step if the goal was to determine how we might best increase carbon sequestration in our existing public forests and how we might create more contiguous canopy to benefit the interior forest species that have few areas of habitat left in NJ due to canopy clearing and forest fragmentation.  For an inventory to have meaning, goals for the use of our forested public lands would need to be agreed upon and this was not possible in the task force process.  

SRRP advocates for making the goal of forest management twofold.  One goal should be to increase carbon sequestration in our public forests by allowing trees to remain in the forest, either standing or decomposing.  It has been repeatedly demonstrated by scientific research that mature deciduous trees with lots of leaves sequester far more carbon in each tree than even a large number of smaller trees that do not have large leaf area.  We should prioritize allowing native trees in our mature forests to continue growing, as well as preventing these mature forests from being converted to other uses.  The Princeton University Net Zero America study demonstrates that stopping deforestation is the best way to increase the carbon sequestration of forests in NJ as well as nationwide.  Protecting forests to increase carbon sequestration would align with state and national goals to reduce carbon emissions.  

The second goal, which is a happy consequence of protecting trees in our forests is that it also would protect the innumerable ecoservices they provide, like filtration of stormwater runoff that cleans water and mitigates flooding, all kinds of habitat for wildlife that rely on intact forests, and one of the most overlooked benefits for our forests, peace and quiet and beauty for people who visit to hike, picnic or just drive by.  It is not expensive to simply let forests grow.  It is technically entirely feasible, unlike carbon capture or some other high-tech climate solutions.  It is also a readily available solution, as NJ already has forested public land.  Task force leaders have said that there is somehow a dichotomy between advocating for carbon sequestration in forests and fostering biodiversity, recreation and other forest benefits.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Protecting forests from logging will readily provide all these benefits, in addition to increasing carbon sequestration.  Another big problem for NJ forest health is deer browse.  Cutting down areas of forest only increases available habitat for deer, who thrive at the edges of forested areas.  Allowing trees to remain standing will reduce habitat for deer in public forests and deer were identified in the task force report as a threat to NJ forests.  

One key recommendation that we agree with is the need for state policies codified by statute for management of NJ public forests, adopted pursuant to the administrative procedures act.   At the very least, this would ensure that the public has some say in the process of approving management plans for NJ forests.

The idea of letting forests grow is not novel.  Since the late-19th century New York state has protected vast acres of forested land under its “forever wild” designation.  Far from being “unhealthy”, as foresters claim unharvested forests to be, the effort to protect over 6 million acres of forest in a natural state has been extremely successful.  It can be and has been done.

The public will have the last word on what happens to our publicly owned forests and I am confident beyond the shadow of a doubt that the public is opposed to logging and removal of wood products from NJ publicly owned forests.  People do not believe that logging is even allowed in parks purchased with Green Acres funding.  Sadly, it is allowed. But it should not be and now is an ideal opportunity to take the necessary steps to protect one of our best hedges against climate change as well as a beloved public asset-- our forests.


Laura Oltman
Support Roaring Rock Park

Saturday, February 18, 2023

NJ Forest Task Force to publish final report to Legislature

Logging at Sparta Mountain WMA
Credit: New Jersey Forest Watch

The NJ Forest Task Force commissioned by Senator Bob Smith (Chair of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee) is about to produce its final report and present to a joint legislative session on Feb. 22, 2023.  Members of the legislature as well as the public and press need to understand how the task force arrived at its recommendations and the science behind them in order to evaluate them.

In forming the task force Senator Smith stated:  Forests are critical to the environmental welfare of our State. They can play a major role in mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide; providing habitats for endangered wildlife; helping clean and protect drinking water sources; and stabilizing soils. Proper management of forests is also necessary for preventing wildfires which are becoming more frequent and intense.[1]

The purpose of the task force was “to study and identify ways in which the State can best manage its [public] forests in order to fight climate change, prevent forest fires, improve ecosystems, and protect soil and water quality.”[2]

A major impetus for creating the task force appeared to be the ongoing mechanized, commercial style logging (clearcutting) on Sparta Mountain of 10+ acres per year since 2011, conducted by the NJDEP in partnership with the NJ Audubon Society.  To date, approximately 110 acres have been essentially clearcut on Sparta Mountain.

Among the many issues uncovered by the task force is the fact that there are no state policies codified by statute for management of NJ public forests adopted pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act.  There are also no formal DEP rules and regulations for this purpose.  The NJDEP along with partners like NJAS are making public policy with no authorization, very little public input and virtually no oversight.

The task force leaders set two key objectives:  1) develop a process to reach consensus where it was possible and 2) base all recommendations on peer-reviewed science.  Consensus was defined as having about 95% of participants in agreement on a topic.  Only policies with consensus support were to become recommendations.  Proposals backed by peer-reviewed science findings were solicited from participants.  After several meetings it was clear that it was going to be very difficult to achieve consensus on almost any topic and the team leaders stated that the science was too deep and complex and the task force did not have the resources to properly evaluate it.  Participants created over 75 proposals but only 40 were discussed.

At that point, the leaders changed tactics and asked for a list of any topics on which we might be able to find consensus.  This started a less than totally transparent process. First, the random list was aggregated by the leaders into a monolithic all-or-nothing package of elements called the Framework.  Participants were asked to vote on accepting or rejecting it in total.  Participants were urged by the leaders to support the entire Framework even if they disagreed with portions of it.  There were several rounds of votes in November and December (and participants were then also able to vote on individual topics), but the leaders never produced a quantitative report on the support for any elements or the total package. In the last iteration of the Framework, all the previously labeled “elements,” suddenly became “Recommendations,” and now form the basis of the task force output.  As of this date, there has been no report demonstrating consensus on any elements in the Framework or the overall document itself, yet it is described by the leaders as ideas that enjoy broad agreement among diverse Task Force participants.

While there are a number of good recommendations in the Framework there are also bad recommendations.  Most egregious is the late inclusion in the Framework – long after task force meetings had ended and, therefore, without any discussion amongst the participants – of Recommendation 15 which states:

The NJDEP should not include commercial profit as a goal in any forest management plan* on public land. Commercial timber management should not be a goal for any forest management plan on public land. Wood products can be sold in instances where cutting and removal of wood is a necessary part of an approved plan with ecological health, climate, or other non-commercial goals.

*includes Ecological Restoration Plans, Natural Resource Stewardship Plans or other plans on public forested lands

This packages a very good recommendation (disallowing commercial logging) with a very bad recommendation (allowing the sale of wood products from approved logging plans for private gain).  This packaging made it impossible for many participants to approve of disallowing commercial logging because the recommendation includes the continuation of the status quo logging, justified through false and misleading claims, as seen on Sparta Mountain.  Moreover, the opposition to this DEP program appeared to be a major factor in creating the task force, but has been manipulated, without consensus support, to now be a recommendation.

Space does not permit a thorough explanation of the arguments used to justify the current and future logging program, the lack of data behind recommendations and omissions from the recommendations.  Briefly,

  • No substantive actions were recommended to fight climate change – the first item on Senator Smith’s list of goals
  • Recommendations were not based on any quantification of the existing or necessary increase in carbon sequestration called for in the Global Warming Response Act 2020 Report
  • It ignores many studies showing that maturing and mature forests store and sequester more carbon than young forests, which are net emitters of carbon for their first two decades
  • Recommendation 15 undercuts efforts to fight climate change by increasing carbon emissions from tree cutting and removal
  • Despite acknowledging the open question of DEP legal authority to set policy for public forests and lack of regulations, the task force specifically recommended that existing plans continue to be implemented
  • Arguments for the need to increase habitat for certain bird species through logging have been debunked[3]
  • There was no consideration of the logging harms to many interior forest bird species, other animals such as amphibians, bobcats and bears and the essential network of mycorrhizal fungi, essential for healthy forests
  • There is no science-based evidence that cutting and removing wood has any climate benefits as included as a rationale in Recommendation 15 – the reverse is true
  • There was no consideration of the harms caused by mechanized logging
  • There was no consideration of any standards for ecological restoration
  • There was no review of the scientifically proven ecological benefits of leaving cut wood on the ground to allow its carbon to be sequestered and the absence of need to remove wood for virtually any ecological purpose
  • There was no willingness to recognize the scientific basis of proforestation forest management in the Framework
  • There were no recommendations on protecting soil and water quality
  • There was no discussion of the often-stated need for a moratorium on logging, until regulations are written

In summary, the task force produced no provable consensus, has not followed the science and recommends the status quo on logging public forests for private gain.  NJ residents have not paid to preserve their forests in order to generate profit for private entities.

Silvia Solaun, Executive Director, New Jersey Forest Watch

Ken Dolsky, Vice President, New Jersey Forest Watch



[3] Kellett, M. J., Maloof, J. E., Masino, S. A., Frelich, L. E., Faison, E. K., Brosi, S. L., and Foster, D. R. (2023). Forest-clearing to create early-successional habitats: Questionable benefits, significant costs. Front. For. Glob. Change.

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