Pinelands Commission Holds Public Hearing on Forest Fire Request to Cut Trees for Tower

Mar 13, 2019
Photo by: Pat Johnson Bass River Forest fire tower on East Greenbush Road in New Gretna.

“You do not cut down the forest to protect the forest,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. Howard Chew, the owner of Mick’s Canoe and Kayak Rentals in Jenkins, population 36, said not cutting the trees around the Bass River Fire Tower to improve visibility was putting himself and his family at risk, plus the thousands of vacationers who come to the Pinelands each summer.

On Friday, March 8, the Pinelands Commission held a second public hearing on the New Jersey Forest Fire Service’s application to cut 16.4 acres of white pines and loblolly pines in Bass River State forest. The hearing drew many residents of Bass River who appreciate the majestic forest planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and don’t want to see it decimated. It also drew Police Chief Richard Buzby of Little Egg Harbor Township, whose township is no longer visible to the fire spotter in the tower because of the majesty of the white pines that grew to overshadow the 80-foot fire tower. He spoke of historic fires in the area that took forest firefighters’ lives.

Many questioned why the Pinelands Commission was again having to hear the application since holding a public hearing in June of last year. At the Aug. 10 commission meeting, the application was tabled until the state Department of Environmental Protection could answer questions pertaining to finding alternatives to the aging fire tower, alternatives such as cameras, smoke sensing monitors and satellite imaging.

In January, the N.J. Forest Fire Service sent its reply. Officials stated they started to systematically review the overall wildfire detection system in 2015, to identify vulnerabilities in wildfire detection and to examine ways to enhance and supplement the system. They have added fixed-wing aircraft to their arsenal and propose building a new manned fire tower in Jackson at the Forest Tree Nursery there.

Also, when a new water tower was constructed in Lakewood, blocking sight lines from the Lakewood Fire Tower, the service installed a camera detection system to aid in fire detection in the obstructed area. “While this system is helping to support wildfire detection … we are also simultaneously evaluating its ability to support our current fire detection system generally.

“Although there is utility to the camera system, it does not provide all the services of a fire observer. Therefore we continue to staff the Lakewood Fire Tower with a fire observer for adequate protection.”

The fire tower observer does more than spot fires; the tower also serves as a communication and dispatch center to coordinate changing weather conditions, such as changes in wind speed  and direction and fluctuations in relative humidity and temperature – important to changing fire lines when fire behavior changes.

“These unique benefits of the fire observer and the fire tower make the fire tower system in New Jersey invaluable.”

In its report to the Pinelands Commission, the Forest Fire Service also nixed the idea of using drones because they might impede the new fixed-wing plane spotters. It also said the satellite detection service by NASA is not immediate because the satellites pass over the area only three or four times a day.

The Forest Fire Service also noted it has reduced the cutting of trees from 80 acres to 16 acres in eight sections of the forest.

During the public hearing, Bass River resident Carl Swansea, who wants to save the trees, said that in 10 years the white pines that are left will have grown to obstruct the tower’s sight lines again. “This is not a 16-acres issue, it’s an 80-acre issue,” he said, and he offered a solution. In his research he found the Long-Leaf fire tower in Alabama, constructed in 1939, was moved 40 miles to a new location at a cost of $30,000. “They had a crane lift it, put it on a flatbed truck, took it to a new location and raised it back up.

“My proposal is to move 25 feet of the (Bass River) tower, 6 miles to a new location that is 140 feet in elevation in an area of pitch pine, low vegetation. It’s a win for everyone.”

Swansea also stated the notification of the public hearing  by letter and in the newspaper used a wrong application number and therefore was invalid.

“It should be rejected as invalid public notice, and that will give you time for fresh minds to come up with a viable alternative to clear-cutting,” he urged.

John Waldrobe, a resident who lives next to the area that is slated to be clear cut, suggested New Jersey is behind the times in its techniques of forest fighting. “At one point there were 8,000 fire towers in the country, and now there are 2,000. That suggests that two thirds of the country have replaced their fire towers with alternative technology. Shouldn’t we do the same here?”

Steven Lee, owner of a large cranberry growing concern in the Pinelands, stated he and his family have been doing forest management for years and claimed it was his father who suggested the forest fire service do controlled burning as a fire suppression method.

“I’ve had expertise with various types of forest management, and clear cutting is the best. The fire tower works for the Forest Fire Service. They need this tower. The fire season starts in 30 days. Alternatives are great, but you need time to implement them. We need a solution now.”

The Pinelands Commission staff will prepare a report from the many opinions expressed pro and con. If it is finished in time, the commission could make its decision at the next monthly meeting, on April 12.

The March 8 public hearing on the fire tower is streamed and available for viewing on the Pinelands Commission website, nj.gov/pinelands/home/meetings.

— Pat Johnson

patjohnson@thesandpaper.net

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