Monday, May 22, 2023

What We Owe Our Trees

Forests fed us, housed us, and made our way of life possible. But they can’t save us if we can’t save them.

By Jill Lepore

The notion that clear-cutting can be counteracted by the planting of trees is a political product of the timber industry.
Clear cut logging on Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area New Jersey Credit: SaveSpartaMountain.org
Credit: SaveSpartaMountain.Org

The woods I know best, love best, are made of Northern hardwoods, sugar maple and white ash, timber-tall; black and yellow birch, tiger-skinned; seedlings and saplings of blighted beech and striped maple creeping up, knock-kneed, from a forest floor of princess pine and Christmas fern, shag-rugged. White-tailed deer dart through softwood stands of pine and hemlock, bucks and does, the last leaping fawn, leaving tracks that look like tiny human lungs, trails that people can only ever see in the snow, even though, long after snowmelt, dogs can smell them, tracking, snuffling, shuddering with the thrill of the hunt and noshing on deer scat for dog treats. I make lists of finds, two-winged, four-footed, and rolling: black-throated green warblers and blue-headed vireos, porcupines and salamanders, tin cans and old tires, deer mice and fisher cats, wild turkeys and ruffed grouse, black bears and, come spring, their tumbling, potbellied, big-eared cubs.

Even if you haven’t been to the woods lately, you probably know that the forest is disappearing. In the past ten thousand years, the Earth has lost about a third of its forest, which wouldn’t be so worrying if it weren’t for the fact that almost all that loss has happened in the past three hundred years or so. As much forest has been lost in the past hundred years as in the nine thousand before. With the forest go the worlds within those woods, each habitat and dwelling place, a universe within each rotting log, a galaxy within a pine cone. And, unlike earlier losses of forests, owing to ice and fire, volcanoes, comets, and earthquakes—actuarially acts of God—nearly all the destruction in the past three centuries has been done deliberately, by people, actuarially at fault: cutting down trees to harvest wood, plant crops, and graze animals. 

Mature Forest, Credit Yale University
Credit: Yale University

The Earth is about four and a half billion years old. By about two and a half billion years ago, enough oxygen had built up in the atmosphere to support multicellular life, and by about five hundred and seventy million years ago the first complex macroscopic organisms had begun to appear, as Peter Frankopan reports in “The Earth Transformed” (Knopf), an essential epic that runs from the dawn of time to, oh, six o’clock yesterday. In his not at all cheerful conclusion, looking to a possibly not too distant future in which humans fail to address climate change and become extinct, Frankopan writes, “Our loss will be the gain of other animals and plants.” An upside!

The first trees evolved about four hundred million years ago, and pretty quickly, geologically speaking, they covered most of the Earth’s dry land. A hundred and fifty million years later, during a mass-extinction event known as the Great Dying, the forests perished, along with nearly everything else on land and sea. Then, two million years after that, the supercontinent broke up, a seismic process whose consequences included depositing oil, coal, and natural gas in the places on the planet where they can still be found, to our enrichment and ruination. The trees returned. The ginkgo is the oldest surviving tree species, its fan-shaped leaves unfurling lime green in spring and falling, mustard yellow, in autumn.

The first primates showed up about fifty-five million years ago, in the rain forest. They lived in the trees. Our ancestors began dividing from apes—began, slowly, coming down from the trees—about seven million years ago; the genus Homo branched off four million years later; and Homo sapiens began wandering around the understory somewhere between eight hundred thousand and two hundred thousand years ago, although exactly when is apparently a matter of fierce debate, which seems right, since humans are such a contentious, Neanderthal-killing lot. Here’s how Frankopan, a professor of global history at Oxford, puts it: “Like rude house guests who arrive at the last minute, cause havoc and set about destroying the house to which they have been invited, human impact on the natural environment has been substantial and is accelerating to the point that many scientists question the long-term viability of human life.” Climate change contributed to the extinction of Neanderthals about thirty-five thousand years ago, but humans, instead of dying out, migrated to different climates, or found other ways to survive, which generally involved controlling fire and burning fallen sticks and branches for heat and to cook otherwise hard-to-digest food, or making axes to cut down trees, whose wood could be used to build shelters and, later, fences for animals. They cut and felled. Knopf printed about twenty thousand copies of Frankopan’s seven-hundred-page book on paper made from trees. I read it sitting in a house built of pine in a chair made of maple at a desk made of oak holding a pencil made of cedar. They cut and felled. The wood in my woodstove is yellow birch, burning, bark curling.

“If you think about it, a tree is a tricky place in which to live,” the biologist Roland Ennos writes in “The Age of Wood” (Scribner). Ennos argues that dividing human history into the Stone Age (beginning two and a half million years ago), the Bronze Age (3000–1000 B.C.E.), and the Iron Age (1200–300 B.C.E.)—a scheme invented in the nineteenth century by a Danish antiquarian—misses the earliest and most important era, the Wood Age.

People are arboreal, at least vestigially, Ennos points out, with binocular vision, upright posture, hind limbs for movement, forelimbs for gripping, and fingers with soft pads and nails, all features that evolved to help primates live in trees. The first primates were as small as mice, and could scramble wherever they liked, but, as they got bigger, it became harder to stay up in the trees, where it was safest, especially at night. A “clambering hypothesis,” among primatologists, has it that the thinking of great apes got more sophisticated—they developed a “self-reflective psychology”—so that they could better understand the mechanics of climbing and swinging through trees. Also, the first tools used by great apes were made of trees and in trees: nests for sleeping in higher branches. (The bigger your brain, the more rem sleep you need.) The earliest hominins who learned to walk upright did so while still living, mainly, in trees, and they came down at night only after figuring out how to make fires—with wood. That had all kinds of knock-on effects, including being able to cook food, which makes it easier for us to get energy out of it, and made it possible for our brains to grow bigger. Hominins came down from the trees, built huts, made fires, and no longer needed their fur, so they lost it, which meant that when the weather, or the climate, got colder they needed warmer huts and more fires, but with those they could go anywhere, as long as there were trees. As for making tools, they mainly used not stone but wood, and when they did use stone it was often to make better tools out of wood. You could use a stone, for instance, to sharpen a wooden spear, a tool you could wield to kill beasts of land and sea.

Along the Dick Flint Trail which has ruins of a 19th century farmstead - Roaring Rock Park, Washington Township, Warren County New Jersey NJ USA
Credit: SRRPNJ.org

In all this time, people did not run out of wood, since there weren’t that many people and there were a great many trees, and because trees grow back. Even after humans invented the stone axe and began to chop down trees, this was still true. Chopping and burning, they cleared openings in forests to attract game, and they adzed trunks and limbs into poles and posts, planks and beams. They built houses and rafts and boats, and some people, in places where they had cleared the forests, began to farm. During the ages of stone, bronze, and iron, down through the early modern era, Ennos writes, “almost all the possessions of everyday folk were wooden, while those that were not actually made of wood needed large quantities of wood to produce.” Only the turn to coal for fuel in the eighteenth century and to wrought iron for building in the nineteenth, he argues, brought about the end of the age of wood. Except that it didn’t exactly end, since imperialism, industrialism, and capitalism meant that people were more likely to go to war and conquer land in order to cut down other people’s trees.

You could tell this story about a lot of places, but consider England and its North American colonies. By the eighteenth century, much of England and in fact much of Western Europe had been deforested, but England needed timber to build ships in order to trade goods, wage war, and found colonies. It especially wanted very tall and straight pines, for ships’ masts. During the long wars between Britain and France, often fought at sea, France had for a time a ship’s-mast advantage, having cut a path known as the Mast Road through the Pyrenees to a stand of tall fir trees. Britain harvested its masts from its colonies, and especially from the tall white pines of New England, having issued an edict, in 1691, that any pine whose trunk, when measured a foot from the ground, was more than twenty-four inches in diameter belonged to the King (later revised, fairly desperately, to twelve inches in diameter). Among the many causes of the American Revolution was the Pine Tree Riot of 1772, when New Hampshire mill owners refused to pay fines for sawing pine trees into boards.

One of the earliest alarms about deforestation written in English is “Sylva, or a Discourse on Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber of His Majesties Dominions,” by Sir John Evelyn, published in London in 1664. Evelyn called for tree planting as an act of patriotism, and if he was the first to do so he was not the last, as the University of Oregon geographer Shaul E. Cohen reported in his book “Planting Nature: Trees and the Manipulation of Environmental Stewardship in America” (2004). Writing about forests, John Perlin urges humans to “stop our war against them” in a new edition of his 1989 book, “A Forest Journey: The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization” (Patagonia), more than five hundred pages but “printed on 100 percent postconsumer paper.” Yet any plans for a truce in this war, including calls for planting trees, have American states legislated the protection of the forests from the start, if to little effect. After the Revolution, for instance, Massachusetts forbade the cutting down of those twenty-four-inch white pines on any public lands. But in the Western territories “public lands,” which were generally the unceded ancestral homelands of tribal nations, quickly became private lands. After the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Congress paid Revolutionary War veterans in plots of land in the Northwest Territory, north of the Ohio River. (“The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress,” Congress affirmed in the Ordinance, in a pledge not honored.) In Conrad Richter’s 1940 historical novel, “The Trees,” a family from Pennsylvania treks to the Ohio Valley around 1787. Their little girl, looking down from a hilltop, is overwhelmed by her first view of the forest, thinking that “what lay beneath was the late sun glittering on green-black water,” mistaking for an ocean what was, instead, “a sea of solid treetops broken only by some gash where deep beneath the foliage an unknown stream made its way.” The whole of Richter’s trilogy, the story of American pioneers, is the story of clearing the woods: “Oh, it was hard beating back the woods. You had to fight the wild trees and their sprouts tooth and nail.” By the trilogy’s end, that little girl, now an old woman, is haunted by regret. “She reckoned she knew now how one of those old butts in the deep woods felt when all its fellows were cut down and it was left standing lone and gaunt against the sky, with only whips and brush and those not worth the axe pushing up around it. The second growth trees you saw today were mighty poor and spindly specimens beside the giants she had known when first she came to this country.”

A sense that the great clearing meant, as well, a great loss pervaded nineteenth-century American culture. Much of it was romance, a product of the wispy, dreamy, self-justifying association many Americans made between the vanishing forest and the imagined vanishing of the Indians, even while the federal and state governments pursued a policy of conquest and war against Native nations. Tree-planting campaigns became the called-for, remorseful remedy. “If our ancestors found it wise and necessary to cut down fast forests, it is all the more needful that their descendants should plant trees,” the landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing wrote in 1847. “Let every man, whose soul is not a desert, plant trees.” That same year, George Perkins Marsh gave a lecture in Rutland, Vermont, that helped launch the conservation movement. Marsh argued that the destruction of the forests had consequences for the climate: “Though man cannot at his pleasure command the rain and the sunshine, the wind and frost and snow, yet it is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action.” He went on:

The draining of swamps and the clearing of forests perceptibly effect the evaporation from the earth, and of course the mean quantity of moisture suspended in the air. The same causes modify the electrical condition of the atmosphere and the power of the surface to reflect, absorb and radiate the rays of the sun, and consequently influence the distribution of light and heat, and the force and direction of the winds. Within narrow limits too, domestic fires and artificial structures create and diffuse increased warmth, to an extent that may effect vegetation. 

Along the White Trail - Roaring Rock Park Washington Township, Warren County New Jersey NJ USA
Credit: SRRPNJ.org

Marsh insisted, “Trees are no longer what they were in our fathers’ time, an incumbrance.” They are, instead, a reservoir, the source of life, the regulators of the climate.

Marsh, a linguist and a diplomat, went on to write a groundbreaking book, “The Earth as Modified by Human Action,” first published in 1864 under the title “Man and Nature,” a nineteenth-century version of Frankopan’s “The Earth Transformed.” The Wisconsin legislature in 1867 commissioned an investigation that resulted in the publication of its “Report on the Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees, Now Going On So Rapidly in the State of Wisconsin.” The state then inaugurated a program of tax exemption for landowners who planted trees. In 1873, the Nebraska senator Phineas W. Hitchcock introduced the Timber Culture Act, declaring, “The object of this bill is to encourage the growth of timber, not merely for the benefit of the soil, not merely for the value of timber itself, but for its influence upon the climate.” The act, a failure, was repealed in 1891. Instead, the lasting consequence of Marsh’s “The Earth as Modified by Human Action” was Arbor Day, created by a Nebraskan named J. Sterling Morton and first celebrated on April 10, 1872.

Morton, the editor of the Nebraska City News, called for a day “set apart and consecrated for tree planting.” On that first Arbor Day, Nebraskans planted more than a million trees. The holiday soon spread, especially after Grover Cleveland appointed Morton as his Secretary of Agriculture, in 1892. The advocacy organization American Forests was founded in 1875, and, as Cohen writes, it also advanced the idea that planting a tree was an act of citizenship. This was a tradition that faltered at various times in the twentieth century but was renewed beginning in 1970 with the first Earth Day (also held in April) and with the establishment of the National Arbor Day Foundation two years later. Its many programs include Trees for America; pay a membership fee, and you get ten saplings in the mail. American Forests runs Global ReLeaf.

But Cohen and other critics have argued that there is little evidence that these programs do much more than greenwash bad actors. American Forests has been sponsored by both fossil fuel and timber companies. In 1996, the climate-change-denying G.O.P. encouraged Republican congressional candidates to have themselves photographed planting a tree. “10 Reasons to Plant Trees with American Forests,” printed in 2001, suggests that “planting 30 trees each year offsets the average American’s ‘carbon debt’—the amount of carbon dioxide you produce each year from your car and home.” The E.P.A., on a Web site that linked to American Forests, urged Americans to plant trees as penance: “Plant some trees and stop feeling guilty.” What with one thing and another, have you used ten thousand kilowatt-hours of electricity? The site offered indulgences: plant ten trees, one for every thousand kilowatt-hours. At the height of the corporate tree-atonement era, a New Yorkercartoon showed a queue of businessmen waiting to see a guru, with one saying to another, “It’s great! You just tell him how much pollution your company is responsible for and he tells you how many trees you have to plant to atone for it.”

The notion that clear-cutting can be counteracted by the planting of trees is a political product of the timber industry. As Cohen shows, the phrase “tree farm” was coined by a publicist at a timber company, as was the motto “Timber Is a Crop.” And the notion hasn’t died. In 2020, the World Economic Forum announced its sponsorship of an initiative called 1t, a corporate-funded plan to “conserve, restore, and grow” one trillion trees by the year 2030. At Davos in 2020, Donald Trump pledged American support. (At the time, the President mentioned that he was reading a book about the environmental movement; written by a former adviser of his, it was called “Donald J. Trump: An Environmental Hero.”)

It’s good to plant trees. No one’s arguing any different. “There’s no anti-tree lobby,” a Nature Conservancy ecologist told Science News recently. Trees are the new polar bears, the trending face of the environmental movement. But it’s not clear that planting a trillion trees is a solution. In terms of biodiversity, killing forests and planting tree farms isn’t much help; a forest is an ecosystem, and a tree farm is a monoculture. Forests absorb about sixteen billion metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, but they also emit about eight billion tons. The main study behind the 1t movement proposes that planting trees on land around the world roughly equivalent in area to the United States will trap more than two hundred billion tons of carbon. Yet a forum published in Science in 2019 expressed grave skepticism about both the science and the math behind this plan. The history is fishy, too. National tree-planting schemes have, historically, come up short. Studies across countries have found that as many as nine in ten saplings planted under these auspices die. They’re the wrong kind of tree. No one waters them. They’re planted at the wrong time of year. They have not improved forest cover. The 1t folks make a point of saying that they’re not planting trees; they’re growing them. But whether they really are remains to be seen.

In the meantime, you are asked to think differently about trees. They’re out there. They’re smart. They will outlast us. Brian Selznick’s graphic children’s novel “Big Tree” (Scholastic) tells the story of trees across tens of millions of years, through the trials of two sycamores: “Once upon a time, there were two little seeds in a very old forest. Their mama said she would give them roots and wings—roots so they’d always have a home, and wings so they would be brave enough to find it.” Selznick’s understanding of forestry, and maternal trees, borrows from the work of the Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard. As a young scientist, Simard was the lead author of a study published in Nature, “Net Transfer of Carbon Between Ectomycorrhizal Tree Species in the Field,” in which she reported the findings of a years-long series of experiments that she conducted with seedlings. “Plants within communities can be interconnected and exchange resources through a common hyphal network, and form guilds based on their shared mycorrhizal associates,” she concluded. That is to say, plants can communicate with one another chemically, and across species, issuing warnings, for instance. Put in human terms, trees can care for one another. Simard came to call certain of these signallers “mother trees,” which both got her into hot water and made her beloved. Although subsequent research verified most of her major findings, she was for a long time chastised by scientists, an experience that was the inspiration for the trials of Patricia Westerford in Richard Powers’s intricate Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Overstory,” from 2018. In the novel, Powers describes the moment of Westerford’s crucial finding, in a forest of sugar maples:

The trees under attack pump out insecticides to save their lives. That much is uncontroversial. But something else in the data makes her flesh pucker: trees a little way off, untouched by the invading swarms, ramp up their own defenses when their neighbor is attacked. Something alertsthem. They get wind of the disaster, and they prepare. She controls for everything she can, and the results are always the same. Only one conclusion makes any sense: The wounded trees send out alarms that other trees smell. Her maples are signaling.

Amy Adams is slated to play Simard in an upcoming film adaptation of Simard’s memoir, “Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest” (Knopf).

Simard is herself something of a maternal spirit in Katie Holten’s collection of essays, poems, and other snippets, “The Language of Trees” (Tin House), in which Holten, an Irish artist and activist, introduces a tree alphabet. Each letter is represented by the striking silhouette of a tree: Apple, Beech, Cedar, Dogwood, Elm, and so on. The book reproduces a piece of Simard’s writing: “When mother trees—the majestic hubs at the center of forest communication, protection, and sentience—die, they pass their wisdom to their kin, generation after generation, sharing the knowledge of what helps and what harms, who is friend or foe, and how to adapt and survive in an ever-changing landscape. It’s what all parents do.” That “mother,” in Holten’s abecedary, reads this way: Mulberry, Oak, Tree of heaven, Horse chestnut, Elm, Redwood.

Simard’s research has also been popularized by a German forester named Peter Wohlleben in his best-selling 2015 book (first translated into English in 2016), “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate.” Wohlleben’s earlier books were downers, like “The Forest: An Obituary.” “The Hidden Life of Trees” is not a downer. Forget imperialism, industrialism, and capitalism. Think feelings. A forest of trees, Wohlleben argues, is like a herd of elephants. “Like the herd, they, too, look after their own, and they help their sick and weak back up onto their feet.” Like elephants—like humans—trees have friends, and lovers, and parents and children. They have language, and they also have, he argues, a kind of sentience.

As science, the mothering, feeling tree is controversial. As literature for a political movement, it’s not bad, and, after all, nothing else has worked—not Arbor Day, not the “Report on the Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees, Now Going On So Rapidly,” not Global ReLeaf, not 1t. At this rate, unless humans think of something better fast, the forests, and then we who walk the Earth, two-legged, will be Dogwood, Elm, Apple, Dogwood. 

This article originally appeared in New Yorker Magazine, May 22nd, 2023.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Forest management: the proforestation approach

Proforestation - a nature based climate change solution

Forest management practices are critical in reducing carbon release into the atmosphere, ensuring wildlife habitat remains to support their protection and reproduction, help ensure clean water supplies, and provide a natural barrier to stormwater runoff.  Several approaches to forest management have surfaced:  afforestation, reforestation, proforestation and The Young Forest Initiative (“YFI”).  The first three approaches share a similar characteristic:  they serve to expand or preserve existing forests to yield ecological benefits.  The last approach, YFI, relies on tree harvesting and logging to create new young forests ostensibly to generate preferred habitats for certain bird species. Among all four, the proforestation forest management approach emphasizes preserving and protecting existing forests.  It discourages tree removal through logging. In her book “The Once and Future Forest, a Guide to Forest Restoration Strategies,” Leslie Jones Sauer further explores the concept of proforestation and introduces the alternative forest management practices anchored on that concept.  

Tell me more about “Proforestation”

Forest management: the proforestation approach
The beauty of New Jersey’s forests - Credit: mycentraljersey.com

Proforestation is a term that refers to the conservation, protection, and restoration of mature, intact forests as a way to mitigate climate change and maintain biodiversity.  Proforestation focuses on preserving and protecting existing forests. It differs from other forest management approaches that involve planting new forests or trees (afforestation, reforestation) or the more controversial technique advanced by the Young Forest Initiative (or Project).

Proforestation is based on the idea that mature forests are the most effective at sequestering and storing carbon. They provide a wide range of other ecological services, including habitat for wildlife, water purification, and soil stabilization. In contrast, younger or newly planted forests, such as those created due to the YFI approach, have not yet developed mature forests' complex ecosystems and carbon storage capacity.

Proforestation has gained increasing attention as a cost-effective and nature-based solution to climate change. Proforestation advocates argue that protecting and restoring existing forests is more sustainable and equitable than relying on large-scale tree planting efforts.

Proforestation highlights the concerns and activities that should be addressed in public forest planning to manage our forests without logging. These include inventory, deer management, pests, and invasive species management, hazardous, downed, and dead trees, young forest creation for Early Successional Habitat (ESH), regeneration, biodiversity and selected species management.

One significant advantage of the proforestation approach is that it does not involve logging, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. Retaining all woody material on site helps to maintain high levels of sequestration and rebuilds the soil. The proforestation approach contrasts with the YFI, which involves logging to create new young forests, leading to a tremendous loss of stored carbon and future sequestration potential.

Japanese barberry - a pervasive threat to New Jersey's forests
Japanese barberry - a pervasive threat to New Jersey’s forests - Credit: srrpnj.org

Another benefit of proforestation is that it addresses the problem of invasive species without logging. Invasive plant species are a significant problem in forests in the northeastern United States, especially in New Jersey. These plants are non-native and outcompete native species for resources, disrupting the balance of the forest ecosystem, and leading to a reduction in biodiversity, changes in soil composition, and alterations in the forest structure. This region's common invasive plant species include Japanese barberry and garlic mustard. These plants spread rapidly and are difficult to control, making them a challenging problem.  The proforestation approach to invasive plant species management is mechanical removal, integrated pest management, and on-site treatment.

In contrast, logging can exacerbate any existing problems with invasive species by opening up the forest canopy, thereby increasing sunlight on the forest floor and encouraging their spread.  Also, logging creates physical pathways to promote their spread.

extreme overabundance of deer is a serious problem for USA forests

Proforestation also highlights the importance of managing deer populations. The extreme overabundance of deer is a serious issue affecting our public and private forests. While canopy-opening projects, such as one conducted by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection at Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area, tend to increase deer populations, stopping logging on public lands will help reduce deer populations. A much more effective strategy is needed to control deer populations to maintain forest health.

Proforestation requires resources to monitor all plant species on site using Floristic Quality Assessment (FQA). It also subscribes to the prescribed burning technique.  

What about the Young Forest Initiative Approach?

YFI promotes the creation of new young forests that provide valuable habitats for certain bird species.  Such habitats are created by logging mature forests, and the resulting young forests break even at the rate at which carbon is absorbed and stored within 80 years.

Moreover, YFI ignores deer management, invasive species management, and regeneration.  Notably, these concerns and issues are proactively addressed by proforestation.

What is best for New Jersey’s forests?

Roaring Rock Park - Washington Township, Warren County New Jersey USA
Roaring Rock Park, Washington Township, Warren County, NJ - Credit: srrpnj.org

Forest management plans based on the YFI and Proforestation approaches have benefits and drawbacks. Those based on YFI promote the creation of new young forests that provide valuable habitats for certain bird species. Still, they involve logging, which reduces carbon sequestration potential and contributes to the adverse effects of climate change. Proforestation addresses the problem of carbon release without logging and emphasizes the management of deer populations, invasive species, and regeneration.

Ultimately, the best approach to forest management depends on the specific forest and its unique characteristics.   Like woodlands up and down the U.S. eastern seaboard, New Jersey's forests are threatened by invasive species and burgeoning deer populations.   Current forest management practice is heavily invested in the Young Forest Initiative approach, which has significant consequences when addressing these critical issues.  In addition, the logging techniques, promoted under the Young Forest Initiative, release carbon stored in the trees as they are removed. Their physical removal also removes their contributions to the global carbon sink necessary to combat  climate change.

Unfortunately, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Fish and Wildlife Service is a YFI partner and uses forest management practices aligned with it, i.e., its technique of widescale tree removal.  Concerned New Jersey residents should contact their state representatives to voice opposition to this practice and support preserving New Jersey’s remaining public forests.  

Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Young Forest Initiative harms mature forests

And we need old growth forests to combat climate change.

Logging harms old growth forests - Credit: Yale University

As it is across the earth, from the Amazon to Alaska, forests are crucial in mitigating climate change.  Their mature trees store carbon through photosynthesis.  Generally, the larger and older the tree, the greater capacity it has to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, store it within its trunk, and sink it into the ground.  A benefit of mature forests is offering protection for wildlife living within them.  It also shelters and supports a diverse array of plant life, plays a crucial role in water filtration and is a natural shield for stormwater runoff and soil erosion.

In particular, forests in the United States have been subjected to decades of clear cutting.   This is especially true here in New Jersey.   In the nineteenth century, as the U.S.A. was industrializing and before the widescale use of fossil fuels, people heavily relied on wood for residential, commercial and industrial uses.  

Most of the forest canopy was lost as the demand for timber increased dramatically during this period, to satisfy the demand for building materials, railroad ties, and fuel for industry. As a result, large-scale clear-cutting became a common practice in many parts of the eastern United States, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains.

Clear-cutting, as performed then and now, involves removing all of the trees in a particular area, often without regard for sustainable forestry practices or the long-term health of the forest. This leads to significant environmental damage, including erosion, soil depletion, and wildlife habitat loss.  Sadly, the clear-cutting forestry practice has not stopped. It continues today, and the damage caused is as relevant as one hundred years ago.

Clear cuts in Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area, New Jersey

As fossil fuel adoption rose, the demand for wood lessened somewhat.  However, forests remain threatened by the demand for wood products in construction projects, the increasing demand for paper and packaging, and the need to clear land for new housing.  The remaining forests have recovered to a point where, in New Jersey, you have forests that contain mature trees again.

Now, instead of a natural variation of old and young trees, there is a situation where the age of most trees in the forests is about the same - 80 to 100 years.

What is the Young Forest Initiative (YFI)?

The Young Forest Initiative (also called the Young Forest Project) (YFI) is a movement, started around 2011, to promote the growth and conservation of young forests, at the expense of older, mature trees. The YFI approach is to establish human led forest management.  The basis of YFI forest management is logging older, mature trees, ostensibly allowing younger trees to take root and grow.  YFI proponents state that by allowing younger trees to grow, specific wildlife species, e.g. the golden winged warbler, that depend on younger forests and grasslands benefit from restoring habitat lost decades ago during the early American industrial revolution.  Aside from the purported biological benefits used to justify the removal of mature trees from an ecological perspective, significant economic benefits drive much of the sponsorship from the federal and state governments.

Who directly benefits from it, and how?

YFI provides economic benefits to non-governmental stakeholders such as private landowners, forest product industries, and recreation and tourism businesses. By actively promoting and managing young forests, these stakeholders can benefit from producing valuable forest products, such as timber and wood chips, and the increased recreational opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts.  Thus, significant economic drivers exist to harvest trees, and these drivers are not inconsequential.

Are there any drawbacks?

Well, the wildlife adapted to mature forests will lose their habitat.

American bald eagle - Sparta Mtn WMA - Credit: NJ Forest Watch

Removing mature trees from old-growth forests can negatively impact the habitats and populations of species that depend on these forests for food and shelter.  With their mature trees, old growth forests provide a diverse range of habitats for a wide variety of species, many of which are adapted to specific stages in the forest's natural succession.

For example, many birds, mammals, and insects rely on old growth forests for nesting sites, foraging opportunities, and protection from predators. The loss of mature trees can result in the loss of these critical habitats, reducing the ability of these species to survive and reproduce.

In addition, old growth forests also provide important habitats for species that depend on the specific microclimates created by the mature trees. For example, some bat species rely on the cooler, moister environments created by the shade of mature trees for roosting and rearing their young.

The consequences of habitat loss for wildlife species can be significant and long-lasting. It can lead to declines in populations, the loss of biodiversity, and changes in the overall structure and function of the ecosystem.

In some cases, habitat loss can also result in the extinction of species that cannot adapt to the new conditions created by the loss of mature trees.

And then there is the invasive species issue.

Japanese barberry - a pervasive threat to New Jersey’s forests -
    Credit: srrpnj.org

Removing mature trees from mature forests can increase sunlight on the forest floor, increasing invasive species.  For example, in mature forests in the eastern and southern USA, invasive plant species from Asia, such as Japanese barberry and Kudzu, have invaded native forests. Invasive species such as these can quickly spread and outcompete native plant species, leading to changes in the composition and structure of the forest ecosystem.

Doesn’t removing mature trees contribute to climate change?

Yes.

As stated before, the removal of mature trees increases the carbon in the atmosphere, contributing to the harmful effects of climate change. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow, and as they mature, they store large amounts of carbon in their wood and leaves. When mature trees are removed, this stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to the overall increase in atmospheric carbon levels.

How is the state of New Jersey promoting similar goals?

The state of New Jersey is currently implementing selective tree harvesting on several of its public forests, some of which are contained in defined Wildlife Management Areas (WMA).  One WMA in particular, Sparta Mountain, has active logging activities conducted under the direction of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) agency.   This logging activity, performed under the context of forest management, removes healthy mature trees from the forest using mechanized logging equipment.   This tree removal not only destroys habitat and increases the threat of invasive species spread, but it also increases groundwater pollution.  

What does this mean for NJ municipal parks such as Roaring Rock?

Along with White Trail in Roaring Rock Park - Credit: srrpnj.org

Granted, much of this forest activity is currently being conducted on NJ state public lands.  That said, recently proposed New Jersey legislation would require all public lands within the state, including municipal parks, to have forest management plans if they are at least twenty-five acres in size.  That legislation, introduced in 2021, met with local government opposition since it created a statewide unfunded mandate on local governments, which helped stall its progress.   Although currently stalled, the state may modify the legislation to remove the controversial funding issue and advance it in the future.

What can I do, as a New Jersey resident, to help?

New Jersey Senator Bob Smith announcing task force - Credit: Insider
    NJ

New Jersey Senator Bob Smith commissioned a forest task force in 2022 to define and shape future legislation.  This legislation will have an impact for decades to come on New Jersey’s public forests.

New Jersey residents may contact Senator Smith's office to express support for preserving New Jersey's public forests. You may either

  1. Call his office at (732) 752-0770,
  2. Send mail via USPS to this address: 216 Stelton Rd., Suite E-5, Piscataway, NJ 08854, or
  3. Use this convenient online form (click HERE to take you to it)

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.

Sincerely,

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


[1] https://www.insidernj.com/press-release/smith-announces-formation-forest-stewardship-task-force/

[2] https://www.insidernj.com/press-release/smith-announces-formation-forest-stewardship-task-force/

[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. https://doi.org/10.3389/ffgc.2022.1073677

Monday, January 23, 2023

NJ Highlands Coalition Press Release

Logging harms old growth forests - Credit: Yale University
Credit: Yale University

New Jersey’s recent investment in urban forestry and management of established public forests at cross purposes, says advocacy group

(Boonton, NJ) The New Jersey Highlands Coalition releases the following statement today in response to New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette’s announcement of the Murphy Administration’s awarding of $24.3 million in Natural Climate Solutions Grants.

Urban tree planting has many benefits, from flood mitigation to air filtration, cooling cityscapes in the summer, reversing blight, providing carbon capture to mitigate against greenhouse gas emissions, and improving the overall quality of life in New Jersey’s cities. We applaud Governor Murphy in making this significant and wise investment in projects to establish urban canopies in Atlantic City, Berkeley Heights, Camden, Kearny, Linden, Newark, Brick, Stafford, Princeton, Trenton and Readington, and awarding grants to implement many of these projects to organizations with histories of excellence in greening urban New Jersey, such as New Jersey Conservation Foundation, American Littoral Society, the Nature Conservancy and Partnership for the Delaware River Estuary.

But we must caution the Governor that, no matter how many trees are newly planted, or how many acres of tidal salt marshes are restored, if at the same time his Division of Fish & Wildlife continues to cut down mature forest stands in established forests, or the Green Acres Program approves Forest Stewardship Plans that clear cut acres of public forests, the Governor’s climate mitigation strategies will result in a zero-sum gain, or worse.

Today, on a regular schedule, acres of mature forests are clear-cut in New Jersey’s publicly owned forests justified and funded by the Young Forest Initiative, to access New Jersey’s remaining mature and valuable timber in the name of spurious ecological goals of habitat restoration and enhancement. And if certain interests succeed, bills currently introduced in the Legislature, if passed, would require that all public forests of 25 acres or more, purchased in whole or in part with Green Acres funds, whether state, county, municipal or non-profit-owned, would be required to implement Forest Stewardship Plans where logging is encouraged.

In early 2021 we discovered that a town in Warren County had contracted with a State-approved forester to implement a 10-year timber harvest plan of the type allowed under the pending bill. It was approved by the NJDEP and the State’s Green Acres program and was for the expressed purpose of raising revenue for the municipality by harvesting timber. If this type of harvest was to occur on all public forests of 25 acres or greater the impacts would be devastating, and the Governor’s initiative to plant urban trees as a measure to mitigate for carbon emissions would not only would be meaningless, but silly.

A recent study by the US Department of Energy has shown that it would take 151 newly planted oak trees 16 years to equal the yearly carbon capture of one 40 foot oak tree, yet today we are cutting down 80-175 year old trees on public lands.

“There is a tremendous disconnect between what the Governor wants to achieve by positioning New Jersey’s public forests to mitigate for our carbon emissions and the State’s approval criteria for managing public forests. We continue to cut down our best defense against climate change,” said Elliott Ruga, Director of Policy and Communications at the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. “No amount of urban tree planting can make up for the loss of carbon capture from our mature forests when they are cut.”

Highlands Coalition board member, Dr. Sara Webb, Director of the Drew Forest Preserve and Professor emerita of Biology and Environment at Drew University said, “Our most mature forests in the Highlands provide society so much in the way of a clean water supply, habitats for the greatest diversity of species, accessible public recreation, carbon sequestration and more. Cutting down our oldest and tallest trees is so destructive to all of these resource values. It defies common sense that we continue to manage our high conservation forests in such a manner.”

“If we want to get serious about climate adaptation in New Jersey we must allow our most mature forests to transition to old growth”, said Julia Somers, Executive Director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. “The harvesting of timber requires bringing heavy equipment into the forest, turning rudimentary foot paths into logging roads, which exposes forest soils to invasions by non-native species and creates habitats that nurture an already over-abundant deer population. Extracting timber prevents soil replenishment and the loss of favored habitat for many healthy forest indicator species such as fungi, insects, amphibians, birds and mammals.”

The New Jersey Highlands Coalition, which advocates for the protection of the region’s natural and cultural resources recognizes that the forests of the Highlands hold the greatest concentration of natural resource values, which is why the Coalition is leading the effort to protect public forests in New Jersey.

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