Pinelands Commission to Hear From NJDEP on Bass River Fire Tower

Sep 12, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

When the Pinelands Commission meets on Friday in New Lisbon, it will hear from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection on matters directly linked to the partial destruction of a CCC White Pine Plantation in Bass River Township for the purposes of supporting fire-fighting efforts. The 80-year-old Bass River Fire Tower has been dwarfed by the nearby pine forest, created by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Drepression (1930-’40s), and the treetops are obstructing views from the tower to the east and south, where much of the populated Pinelands towns are located.

The 86-foot-tall fire tower covers an area of visibility of approximately 200 square miles for detecting and suppressing wildfire. The state Forest Fire Service holds that a public safety threat is posed to New Gretna, Ocean Acres, Smithville and Tuckerton due to obstructed views from the fire tower.

On the other hand, Bass River Township officials and many of its citizens oppose the razing of 16.4 acres of trees from seven areas (down from a proposed 19 acres) because it is considered a beautiful, historic and educational part of Bass River State Forest.

The Pinelands 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.

Opponents have suggested that the Forest Fire Service should have investigated other means to conduct forest fire surveillance, including a camera system or even drones.

During the last Pinelands Commission meeting, the commissioners became deadlocked on whether to approve the request from the Forest Fire Service, even though Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg had approved the request, saying it is a routine request since wood cutting is an approved activity in the Pinelands Forest Area. Other commissioners suggested the NJDEP had not done a thorough environmental study in the old-growth forest for threatened and endangered birds and that the primary purpose of the comprehensive management plan is to protect the forests of the Pinelands.

The deadlock among commissioners meant the Pinelands Commission would ask the Office of Administrative Law to 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.

On Aug. 23, Wittenberg received a letter from the Office of the Attorney General, which oversees the OAL.

Deputy Attorney General Mark Collier, acting for the AG, suggested the NJDEP would rather request an extension of the application process so its representatives can give their side of the story to the commission. “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,” he wrote.

If this request is denied, then Wittenberg’s determination would be referred to the Office of Administrative Law.

The Pinelands Commission will hear from the NJDEP and possibly make a decision at its Sept. 14 meeting in New Lisbon. The commission live streams the meetings on its home page on the internet.

— Pat Johnson

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