A Dying Forest – Does Anyone Care?

By BOB WILLIAMS | Feb 01, 2017

Anyone who visits an Atlantic white cedar forest in southern New Jersey would agree these are special forests and we need to conserve and protect them. They are wetland forests and provide critical environmental services to society. This forest has been categorized as “globally threatened” or “critically imperiled” by several environmental groups. Sounds serious enough, but what are we doing to help or conserve this resource?

About 20 years ago, the state of New Jersey brought together interested stakeholders to develop best management practices for Atlantic white cedar. This, along with years of cedar research done by George Zimmermann, professor of environmental studies at Stockton University, was intended to begin an Atlantic white cedar initiative that would end centuries of decline and begin the restoration of this important forest ecosystem. However, that effort quickly waned as a result of bureaucratic bickering as to how to manage public land.  

Local, county, state and federal governments, along with nonprofits, continue to “preserve lands” but have done little to nothing to provide for the critically needed management of the cedar forest resources. This ecosystem remains in rapid decline from annual events such as tornadoes, wind throw, hardwood and brush encroachment, uncontrolled wildfire, beaver flooding and, most recently, root rot diseases. The remaining small, fragmented remnants of cedar forests no longer are able to respond with regeneration from these disturbance events. Superstorm Sandy destroyed several thousand acres of this forest, and there has been no effort to restore these storm-damaged stands of cedar along our coasts. We also see the continued loss of the coastal cedar stands as sea water continues to rise.  

One only needs to drive around southern New Jersey to readily see the falling down, declining cedar stands and there you have it – a forest dying in plain sight and no one seems to even care. How can that be in this age of environmentalism?

If government and people cared, as they claim, we could do something. We now have over 85 years of excellent scientific research that can guide us to apply the needed active management activities that would stop the centuries of decline as well as begin to provide for a net gain of cedar ecosystems annually. So-called conservation efforts that result only in the purchase of land for the purposes of “preserving it” have failed.

We need to begin to provide for the regeneration of cedar forests with well-designed management plans and actions. Benign neglect of this forest has consequences. Those who would oppose the active management of this forest resource must be held accountable and explain to the generations to come why we have allowed this loss to happen when we knew better.  

If we can spend billions of dollars to buy public land, surely we can spend a few dollars to steward and care for these forest resources. On private lands, we now have seen success with restored, young cedar stands that would not be there if we had not intervened. These young forests are there for others to view to be inspired to begin to care for this forest on a landscape level. How ironic! The government buys most land to protect it from “greedy” private land owners government thinks will exploit the forest, yet it is the private land owners who now, by action, have shown they care more about the white cedar forests than public ownership entities do.  

It was Benjamin Franklin who first raised concerns about the loss of the Atlantic white cedar forests, in the mid-1700s. He knew what he spoke of. With only 10 percent of the original forest left across its entire range of the Atlantic seaboard, will the political social structure of our modern society step up and support the management and expansion of the remaining white cedar patches?

Next time you visit Independence Hall in historic Philadelphia and look up at the Atlantic white cedar shingle roof, think about the forest that has sheltered that magnificent building for hundreds of years. Think about it some more, then get off your butt and do something to help the forest that has given up so much. Make a difference!

Bob Williams is a certified forester with Pine Creek Forestry in Laurel Springs, N.J.



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