Pinelands Commission to Act on Tree Cutting at Fire Tower

Jul 11, 2018
Photo by: Pat Johnson This portion of Bass River State Forest would be clear cut to improve sight lines from the fire tower on West Greenbush Road.

On Friday, July 13, the New Jersey Pinelands Commission will most likely approve a plan to cut 16.4 acres of white pine from around Bass River State Forest in order to improve the sight lines from the fire tower on West Greenbush Road in New Gretna. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Forest Fire Service is proposing the tree removal.

The director of regulatory programs, Chuck Horner, said in a letter dated June 22 to the Forest Fire Service that Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg and the commission staff recommend the trees be removed in order to restore visibility from the tower.

“On behalf of the Commission’s Executive Director, I am recommending that the Pinelands Commission approve the application with conditions at its July 13, 2018 meeting,” wrote Horner.

The commission’s public comment period closed on June 8 at 5 p.m.; by that time it had received 11 verbal comments, eight opposed and three in favor, and 31 written comments, 28 opposed and three in favor.

During a previous Pinelands Commission meeting on June 8, a number of impassioned Bass River residents and others gave testimony overwhelmingly in favor of saving the trees and finding alternative, more modern ways to protect the area from forest fires. But in the interests of public safety, fire chiefs from Mystic Island and Parkertown and Richard Buzby, the chief of police of Little Egg Harbor Township, spoke in favor of the tree clearing, as did the head of the New Jersey Fire Safety Council.

The 86-foot-tall fire tower covers an area of visibility of approximately 200 square miles for detecting and suppressing wildfire but has been impeded from a clear view to the east and south because of the growth of the trees.

The service holds that a public safety threat is posed to New Gretna, Ocean Acres, Smithville and Tuckerton due to obstructed views from the tower.

The 16.4 acres proposed for tree clearing are comprised of seven separate areas surrounding the fire tower. All trees within the seven areas would be removed. The seven areas range in size from one acre to four acres. All seven areas are located within approximately 1,400 linear feet of the fire tower and contain trees in excess of 90 feet tall.

An additional number of acres was scrapped from the plan after local input. But part of the area to be cut is the popular 3.5-mile pink trail frequented by hikers in the state forest.

During the public comment period on June 8, Thomas Doherty of New Gretna said he was opposed to the plan because of the loss of recreation, history of the Civilian Conservation Corps that planted the trees, the environment and businesses in the area that rely on natural beauty to draw tourists. He said replacing the fire tower with a taller structure would be a better solution than removing trees.

Police Chief Buzby supports the application because early detection of forest fires is crucial in battling the fires and in protecting the lives of the public, firefighters and other emergency response teams. He said a new tower would be ideal but is not in the budget.

“We have had any number of serious fires that have devastated or threatened to devastate vast areas of the Pinelands,” said Buzby. He brought up two fires that burned to the edges of communities, one in 1983 and the most recent in 2007. “Early detection of these Pinelands fires is not only essential to Pinelands communities, but to the Pinelands environment as well. ... Because of the volatile nature of Pinelands fires, if we don’t have an adequate forest fire service, we’re in deep trouble.”

Karl Swanseen of Bass River Township said the real issue is the age of the Bass River fire tower, built in 1939. “The age of the tower is 10 years beyond its life expectancy. … Clearly there are more modern solutions to firefighting, like cameras.”  He said Brick and Monmouth County use camera systems to detect fires. In his letter to the commission he stated, “This is not 19 acres of pitch pine and scrub oak. This is a 19-acre cathedral of magnificent old and majestic pines,” he said.

The original proposal had an additional 63 acres, the entire plantation targeted for clear-cutting, and Swanseen wondered if they would be in line for clear cutting as they grew taller. “These are historic plantations and a living monument. The Civilian Conservation Corps acres were planted in 1934, the Bass River State Forest white pine in 1928, and the Bass River State Forest loblolly pine in 1908. They are the closest thing we have to an old-growth forest. This woodland is a treasure valued by our community and the many visitors who pass through this gateway to our many campgrounds and the Lake Absegami State Park. The proposed cut is located right off the Parkway exit and runs along the road. It would be a sin to defile this beautiful gateway and replace it with the blight of a clear cut.”

He also took the opportunity to show photos of the clear cutting of the Harrisville spillway done over the winter to protect the dam from tree roots. He noted the stumps are still in the ground. “It devastated the whole area; we don’t want that done here.”

But Bill Basher from the New Jersey Fire Safety Council said the history of wildfires in the area includes seven firefighter fatalities (three in 1937 and four in 1977). “Fire towers in New Jersey also serve as command posts during fires. They help to coordinate resources and can relay crucial information to firefighters on the ground about fire behavior and wind shifts. Failure to remove these trees will increase the risk to residents and reduce firefighter safety.”

Another Bass River Township resident, Carol Bixburger, said she was concerned if the towers built in 1938 are still viable today since they are manned only in the daytime and only certain months of the year. “You send a person up in a tower from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in March, April, May and October and November. These modern systems have the ability for coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have so much technology today; I can’t even comprehend it all. We need to move on – we should be looking ahead for alternatives.”

And Ricki Losiewicz from Little Egg Harbor said the technologies available today can detect smoke and with GPS systems have the ability to send firefighters right to the fire spot. “These technologies work 24/7 and may be more efficient and thorough than a human posted in a tower. I ask you to help find an alternative and stop this plan. This is a perfect opportunity to begin modernization of our fire detection capabilities, and this is a perfect place to start. We are a pinelands village; our most precious and valued assets are our woodlands, waterways and wildlife.” Losiewicz provided a brochure from EnviroVision, an imaging system that detects smoke.

Parkertown Fire Chief Frank Runza, acting fire chief of Little Egg Harbor, said he supports the tree removal at Bass River State Forest because it’s all about lifesaving, and fire towers have done the job for the past 100 years.

April Dolch of Bass River Township raised concerns about potential injuries to the men and women who have to go up in the aging tower. “These fire towers are past their prime, and who will be responsible for their workman’s comp if they are injured or in case of death? There is modern technology out there; take the time to research it.”

Kathy Gardiner, a volunteer naturalist with Bass River State Forest, said the grove of trees that are slated to be cut is like an enchanted forest. “You can take a book out there and sit and feel like you are in another world.”

John Ryan of Bass River called the forest a gem. “This area of forest is one of the loveliest places to walk throughout New Jersey. It’s also a habitat that will be lost. Consider what has happened at Harrisville Pond and one side of Lake Absegami (clear cut this spring). There must be alternatives to something so drastic. What’s been left at Harrisville is an eyesore and heartbreaking.”

Because of the June 8 public input and letters received from others, including the Bass River Board of Commissioners, who oppose the clearing and also the use of herbicides, the amended application eliminates the proposed use of herbicides.

After the proposed tree clearing, the application proposes site preparation of the 16.4 acres by drum chopping and wood disking. The forestry service proposes to replant native tree seedlings as well as loblolly pine, a non-native species previously existing in the cleared areas. White pine, also a non-native species, will not be replanted due to its fast rate of growth.

According to Pinelands Commission staff reports contained in the available information, there have been sightings of threatened and endangered (referred to as T&E) animal and plant species in the vicinity of the proposed tree clearing.

“The Commission staff reviewed the proposed tree clearing to determine whether it was designed to avoid irreversible adverse impacts on habitats that are critical to the survival of any local populations of T&E animal species and irreversible adverse impacts on the survival of any local populations of T&E plant species. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Endangered and Nongame Species Program staff also reviewed the proposed tree clearing to determine impacts on T&E animal and plant species. To avoid potential irreversible adverse impacts on any T&E avian species, prior to undertaking the proposed tree clearing, the applicant proposes to conduct visual surveys to identify and mark any trees containing cavities or nests for potential T&E avian species. Any trees containing potential T&E avian species cavities or nests will be marked and left standing.

“To avoid any irreversible adverse impacts on habitats that are critical to the survival of any local populations of T&E snake species, the applicant proposes to utilize only low ground pressure equipment for any tree clearing, drum chopping or wood disking undertaken between November 1 and April 30 (when snakes are hibernating).

“The applicant has demonstrated that no suitable habitat exists for any T&E plant species of concern.”

The state also had to research the area for cultural resources. “The 16.4 acres proposed for tree clearing are part of pine plantations established in Bass River State Forest between the years 1933 and 1942 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The New Jersey Historic Preservation Office determined in 2004 that Bass River State Forest was eligible for designation on the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places based upon the Bass River State Forest’s association with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal CCC program. Approximately 4,500 acres of trees were planted in Bass River State Forest by the CCC.”

The Pinelands Commission staff determined that the trees proposed for removal do constitute a significant historic resource. The Comprehensive Management Plan for the Pinelands requires the commission to treat significant historic resources in one of three ways: preservation of the resource in place, if possible; preservation of the resource at another location, if preservation in place is not possible; then recordation (picture-taking) is allowed. Based upon review of the application, the commission staff has determined that preservation in place is not technically feasible because obscuring the line of sight from the Bass River Fire Tower would result in a risk to public safety.

And the commission staff determined that, since the proposed tree clearing would result in minimal ground disturbance (limited to 6 inches below ground), a cultural resource survey (for artifacts) is not required.

The entire June 8 Pinelands Commission meeting minutes plus application packets and agenda for the July 13 Pinelands Commission meeting are on the Pinelands Commission’s website

The application will be acted on at the July 13 Pinelands Commission meeting at its headquarters in Southhampton.

— Pat Johnson

Comments (1)
Posted by: Neal J Roberts | Jul 15, 2018 09:29

Thank you, Pat Johnson, for your attention to and thorough, balanced coverage of this compelling drama concerning the historic Bass River State Forest. I am only marginally acquainted with the white pines at issue, based on what I see when driving past the entrance to Lake Absegami. Now that I read about the clear-cutting plan of 16 acres, I intend to hurry and explore this woodland treasure before it is destroyed. I am very disappointed to read of the hard-headed resistance to reasonable arguments made for moving wildfire detection into the 21st century, rather than relying on Civil War-era technology of sending a guy up a tower with a set of binoculars. In this long-running age of when "progress" is usually the culprit in sacrificing a wildlands treasure, how odd it is to see a stubborn insistence that wildfire detection in this area must depend on the old ways.

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