Pinelands Commission Delays Action on Clear Cutting Forest Around Fire Tower

Jul 18, 2018
Photo by: Pat Johnson White pine forest along Greenbush Road in Bass River State Forest that is slated for demolition.

The vote on an application by the New Jersey State Forest Fire Service to the Pinelands Commission to cut 16.4 acres of white pines from Bass River State Forest in order to improve visibility from a fire tower has been deferred to the commission’s Aug. 10 meeting. The commission was ready to approve it on Friday, July 13, but it has been appealed by a resident of Bass River Township. The appeal was sent on to the Attorney General’s administrative law office but did not return to the commission in time for the Friday vote.

During the commission’s July 13 meeting, Executive Director Nancy Wittenburg said that because of pending litigation against a proposed New Jersey Natural Gas line through the pinelands, a precedent had been set to send all third-party appeals to the AG’s office. “The Attorney General’s office did not have enough time to send it to the governor’s office and get it back to us by today,” she said.

Bass River Township resident Carol Bitzberger sent the appeal letter on July 10 after receiving notice from the Pinelands Commission that said it would be approving the tree cutting.

Bitzberger contends the manned tower could be replaced by a camera or smoke detection system such as those used in the west. She wrote: “Why wasn’t a faster, more efficient, less expensive and permanent solution considered? There are easier and faster ways to solve a problem than to destroy a forest that is enjoyed, used (by the public), historic and provides recreation to many people?”

Also during the July 13 meeting, the commission’s attorney suggested an email sent by Commissioners Mark Lohbauer and Richard Prickett to Pinelands Commission Chairman Sean Earlen and Executive Director Wittenberg, and then circulated to all the commissioners, was now a public document, according to the open public meetings act, and needed to become part of the minutes of the July 13 meeting. On Monday, July 16, Public Information Officer Paul Leakan released it to The SandPaper.

In part, the two commissioners wrote: “We believe that the Commission can support the prevention of forest fires and protect Pinelands resources as well. These two goals are compatible and not mutually exclusive. With these goals in mind, we are writing to share some additional information that was included in the application file.

“The file included copies of a resolution from 1995 in which the Service asked to clear-cut 4.1 acres to the North, East, and South of the Bass River Tower to restore visibility for fire prevention. In 1995, the public proposed alternatives to cutting trees including a video camera system. DEP rejected these alternatives stating that it had no funding for alternatives. DEP also stated that replacing the fire tower was too costly in 1995. The Commission approved the application in December,1995. A member of the public, Bob Blumberg, appealed the decision to the Office of Administrative Law. A settlement was reached to reduce the clear-cutting to 2.7 acres, which were apparently clear-cut. Today, 23 years later, the Service requests that we approve a nearly identical application. There is no indication in the application file that any alternatives were considered.

“Alternatives to clear-cutting forests have become even more effective in the years since 1995. On the West Coast, where forest fires are much more frequent, expansive, and deadly, millions of acres are protected by a 24/7 video cam/software detection system called ‘Forest Watch.’ It is much more rapid and effective than human-eye detection, and more precise at determining event locations.

“A draft letter to the applicant (NJFFS) dated June 22, 2018 was also included in the application file. It included the following: ‘The tree clearing proposed in this application identifies the opportunity to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and (t)he Pinelands Commission to initiate discussions regarding the age of existing fire towers in the Pinelands Area, the possible future need to reconstruct those towers, the future tree clearing necessary to ensure visibility for fire towers, and the role of alternate technologies in detecting forest fires.’

“This language was not included in the materials furnished to the Commission in the Board packet.

“In light of the forgoing, we recommend that the Commission add the following provision to the resolution before us: ‘The Pinelands Commission staff will develop an ecologically friendly plan to avoid the need to clear-cut forests in the future. The staff will work with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service and the DEP to examine the age of existing fire towers in the Pinelands Area, the possible future need to reconstruct those towers, the future tree clearing necessary to ensure visibility for fire towers, and the role of alternate technologies including video cameras and an associated software detection system in detecting forest fires. The plan will include an analysis of currently available methods of early forest fire detection, and will recommend to the Commission, the New Jersey State Forest Service, and the NJDEP, how they may jointly implement the best method available to detect forest fires. The Pinelands Commission staff will submit the plan to the Commission for its consideration no later than February 1, 2019.’

“With the exception of the forgoing comments, the proposal has redeeming qualities that are not apparent in the application in the Board packet: 1) Careful thought has gone into the protection of T/E species, in this case snakes and bird species; 2) The use of herbicides has been eliminated from the applicant’s request; 3) The 7 areas to be cut will be cut in stages over two years, with re-planting of native and CCC-introduced nonnative species (except White Pine, which creates most of the obstruction); 4) The approach is intended to foster the creation of new habitats that would increase plant and animal diversity. Based upon these observations, we recommend that the following language also be added to the resolution: ‘In order to better protect the habitat of threatened and endangered species and to preserve forest landscapes, in future proposals to clear-cut trees to address visibility limitations at fire towers, the Commission will examine whether the new trees anticipated to be planted pursuant to this application have been established (by virtue of reaching at least ten feet (10’) in height, or at least five (5) years of age). In the event that new obstructions were to obscure the view from a fire tower and pose a threat to effective forest fire detection during that interim, the Commission will consider whether the use of video camera and computer technology or the topping (of) any obstructing trees may be a preferred alternative to clearcutting those trees.'”

The Pinelands Commission will hold its next meeting on Aug. 10 at 9:30 a.m. in its new office, located at the Richard J. Sullivan Center for Environmental Policy and Education, 15C Springfield Rd., New Lisbon. A previous article incorrectly stated the Pinelands Commission was still in Southampton.

— Pat Johnson

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