Pinelands Commission Impasse Delays Cutting of Bass River State Forest Trees at Fire Tower

Aug 15, 2018

The New Jersey Forest Fire Service and the New Jersey Pinelands Commission are now pitted against each other over the fate of 16.4 acres of trees in Bass River State Forest planted during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps but now blocking the view from a fire tower. The Forest Fire Service is a division of the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection.

During the Aug. 10 Pinelands Commission meeting, the application to restore visibility from the Bass River fire tower was discussed by the commissioners. However, they were unable to come to a decision, first to extend the application in order for the commission to gather more information on alternate technologies to watch for fires that would not require the cutting of old-growth trees, and then to approve the application. The matter now goes to the Office of Administrative Law for a hearing.

This move that makes adversaries of two state agencies is a new one for the Pinelands Commission. “It’s unprecedented,” said Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg.

At issue is the Forest Fire Service’s contention that trees must be cut to allow for a clearer view from the fire tower on Greenbush Road in Bass River. The Pinelands Commission’s staff found that the tree cutting did not violate the Pinelands Commission’s Comprehensive Management Plan, and this was approved by Wittenberg.

But the lengthy discussion during the meeting included an impassioned opinion by Commissioner Edward Lloyd (professor of environmental law at Columbia University) that the application violates the CMP.

“According to the application, all clearing of forested areas is limited to accommodating the goals of the structure of the Forest Fire Service. I don’t think they have demonstrated the limits of the extension of their clearing. Fire detection services can be done without the clearing whatsoever of any trees.”

Commissioner Mark Lohbauer suggested the commission “table” or extend the application until the forest fire service could provide answers raised by the public during the public hearing to find alternative ways to protect the Pinelands from forest fires rather than staffing a tower during limited daylight hours during fire seasons. “There are ways to solve the visibility of that sector, and the forest fire service has not done that despite repeated requests from the public,” said Lohbauer. “The applicant has declined to present alternatives. We can’t be railroaded by any applicant. This application was started two years ago, and they only brought it to us in mid-May.”

Wittenberg countered by saying she’d had discussions with the head of the forest fire service’s natural and historic resources and the deputy commissioner of the NJDEP but was limited by the attorney to generic statements of the nature of the discussions. “All I can tell you is I have had discussions, and the forest fire service is not in agreement with that (extending the application).”

Pinelands Commission chairman Sean Earlen suggested that a recent commission decision on requiring alternative septic systems in the Pinelands possibly started when someone who approached the PC for a septic system was denied, and updated and improved technology was created. “Might not this be a parallel situation?”

“No,” said Witttenberg. “This application was reviewed by staff and found to be consistent with the CMP. It was a straightforward application. We can’t now say, ‘Hey, why don’t you look for alternatives?”

Lohbauer said that in an early draft of the resolution before the commission, the PC staff recommended the Forest Fire Service review alternative technologies in the future.

“The staff wants to see this happen in the future, and I’d like to see it apply to this now. Otherwise it’s meaningless.”

Lohbauer said that 23 years ago, essentially the same application to clear cut 4.6 acres of trees around a Bass River forest fire tower went to the Office of Administrative Law and the acreage was reduced to 2.7 acres. This application was originally to clear-cut 80 acres, and that was reduced to 16.4 acres after the PC staff looked at it.

Commissioner Lloyd said any clearing was not necessary. “We’re here to protect the Pinelands and the trees of the Pinelands.”

Lloyd said he was not interested in a standoff with a state agency, but he would like to sit down with the NJDEP and discuss it.

Wittenberg said she was frustrated that she couldn’t tell the commission what the DEP had told her. “I’m frustrated with the process.”

Lohbauer said he was frustrated as well with the process. “The executive director has information she can’t tell us,” he said to make his point that the matter needed more consideration. “Why don’t we reopen the comment period so you can tell us what the DEP said?

“Today we have the opportunity to give them a sense of how we feel, that we need more information, that we need to address the questions the public has asked of us. What about technology? We have heard that it’s too expensive to put video cameras and that it will cost $400,000 to build a new tower; we don’t know the cost of this clear-cutting. We need more information to balance the needs of the forest fire service and the needs of the CMP.

“The public has pointed out to us that video technology is better than putting a person in a tower, and it has been used in two locations in New Jersey for 16 months. Fire tower technology is 90-year-old technology.”

Wittenberg then decided she could break whatever rule was keeping her from discussing her conversations with the NJDEP and said, “The DEP told me and the forest fire service that the cameras in place in Ocean County and Monmouth are not functioning, they have losses of service. They have been testing them and have not found them to be sufficient for their needs. They are continuing to look at it.”

On another front, Commissioner Richard Prickett said the report accompanying the application says the forest service would be cutting trees in seven different areas within the 16 acres, and by doing that they would create open areas that could allow for T&E (threatened and endangered species), creating the potential for T&E plant life to take hold once the upper story of trees is thinned. On the other hand, the endangered avian species, particularly the barred owl that is in residence, would not benefit from leaving a tree with a nesting cavity standing in the middle of a clear cut. He suggested the PC staff do an environmental survey in the areas to be clear-cut – something they have not done.

He said it was unusual and created a precedent to allow clear-cutting before doing a T&E survey of the forest area.

When the commission was unable to come to a consensus on the application – six members voted for it and nine others either voted no or abstained – it was deemed to go to the Office of Administrative Law.

The attorney suggested the DEP and the Pinelands environmental staff would have an assistant attorney general appointed to them and the Pinelands Commission another. “There are going to have to be Chinese Walls created everywhere,” he said.

— Pat Johnson

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