Pinelands Commission Stymied on Case to Remove Trees From Fire Tower Site

Administrative Law Judge Will Hear the Application
Sep 19, 2018

The ongoing question of whether the state Pinelands Commission will allow the state Forest Fire Service (under the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection) to clear-cut a forest area in Bass River State Park has yet to be settled, and it may take the Office of Administrative Law to do it.

When the commission met on Sept. 14, it announced representatives from the NJDEP would not be appearing at the meeting but that the DEP’s request to extend its application was granted. The DEP’s application is to clear-cut 16.4 acres of mature pine forest in Bass River State Forest in order to improve sight lines from the Bass River Fire Tower.

Bass River Township residents who had traveled to New Lisbon to hear the case were disappointed; they hoped to question the DEP on why it had not investigated other technological means by which to watch for forest fires rather than relying on a person in the 86-year-old tower. Bass River Township’s mayor, officials and many residents are opposed to the tree clearing.

During the Aug. 23 Pinelands Commission meeting, some commissioners voiced the same objections to cutting the forest and asked why technology and cameras had not been investigated by the DEP years ago when so ordered regarding another tree cutting request in 1992. Subsequently, the commissioners did not reach the required eight-member yea vote to approve the Forest Fire Service’s request.

Commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg had approved the request in her report to the commission on the basis that woodcutting is an approved activity in the protected Pinelands Forest Area, but her approval still goes to the full commission.

The defeat of the motion to approve the plan means the Office of Administrative Law will take over the application process. The OAL is an independent body of judges set up in 1979 to handle law cases where state agencies or employees are in conflict. The Division of Forestry and the Forest Fire Service are both divisions under the DEP, as is Bass River State Forest.

According to Wittenberg, the state attorney general’s office has already assigned attorneys “all over the place” in response to Bass River Township resident Carol Bitzberger’s appeal and the lack of support by the Pinelands commissioners.

The Aug. 23 letter from Deputy Attorney General Mark Collier to Wittenberg requested an extension of the DEP’s application.

“Please be advised that the NJDEP would welcome the opportunity at the Commission’s next meeting to brief the Commission on the Bass River State Forest Fire Tower proposal and answer any questions that members may have. As such the NJDEP request an extension of time for the Commission to act for the purposes of allowing such a briefing to take place,” wrote Collier.

However, during the Sept. 14 meeting, Wittenberg said she would take written questions posed by the commissioners and forward them to the DEP and would then bring the written answers back to the commission to be reviewed at its next meeting, on Oct. 12.

When PC Chairman Sean Earlen opened the September meeting to the public, Bass River residents Karl Swanseen and Bitzberger both objected to their inability to comment on the application.

Earlen said since the public comment period had been closed back on June 8, they were not going to be included in the record.

Swanseen then asked if the public could ask questions next month when the commission discusses the DEP’s answers and was told “no.”

Commissioner Mark Lohbauer said not all the commissioners agree with censoring the public. “There was dissension on this, but I will always abide by the determination of the commission. But I resent the fact that we have taken a stand to refuse public comment.”

He immediately went on to say, “Today, climate change has resulted in two devastations on both our coasts: Hurricane Florence from warming ocean temperatures, and fires in California. I think it’s essential, it’s critical that we stop talking and address climate change and add a climate change policy to the CMP (Comprehensive Management Plan).”

The commission will live-stream the October meeting on its home page on the internet.

— Pat Johnson

patjohnson@thesandpaper.net

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