McKeon, environmentalists to meet over proposed amendments to forestry bill

TRENTON – Every acre of forest land is precious, and consequently, must be actively managed. So says Assemblyman John McKeon, (D-27), South Orange.

The bill he introduced to do just that, A4358, would allow some harvesting of trees on state forest land.

The proposal – although released this week by the Environment Committee he chairs – faced some criticism by environmentalists. And McKeon said today he has a meeting scheduled for Thursday with them to address their concerns.

Among other things, McKeon’s bill – the upper chamber version is sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith, (D-17), Piscataway – would have the Department of Environmental Protection establish a forestry harvest program that would include selling the wood for the best price and developing a strategy for a viable market for products such as wood pellets useful in alternative energy.

“Even in good times,’’ McKeon said, “forestry has been kind of a stepchild as it relates to environmental stewardship,” and he sees the bill as a means to ensure a best way is pursued to preserve those resources for future generations.

Environmental advocates have concerns, though. 

The N.J. Sierra Club proposed several amendments. Among them:

* No equipment should be taken through wetlands, wetlands buffers, or stream crossings.

* Only existing roads should be used for forestry activities, without widening them. If there has to be some minor extensions to access areas, they cannot be through environmentally regulated areas such as wetlands or steep slopes.

* No forestry activities should be allowed in areas where there are threatened or endangered species, with limited exceptions.

* The program should not be exempt from adhering to the Highlands Act, which prohibits the disturbance of more than one-quarter acre of forest.

In addition, Jeff Tittel of the N.J. Sierra Club said they are concerned that the bill will not do enough to prevent logging in some of the most environmentally sensitive lands and that it will be private business interests, the loggers, who will reap huge profits.

But McKeon said: “I can’t imagine any responsible administration would let a valuable asset go without a commensurate value of compensation.”

The scheduled meeting over the proposed amendments will help to address just such concerns, he hopes.

And Carol Rivielle of the League of Humane Voters, which opposes the bill altogether, said on Monday when the bill cleared committee, that “Today was one of the saddest days in New Jersey history when the Assembly Environment Committee members voted in favor of A4358, which will permit the commercial logging and cutting down of New Jersey’s public forest land.’’

Rivielle and some others argue that among other things, they fear logging will create ‘edge’ habitat that will attract deer, which is something hunters want.

And Tittel said that, “We have seen in the past logging in environmentally sensitive areas causing streams to run brown for years later and opening up the canopy, allowing invasive species to take over. This land belongs to all of us, and we should not allow them to destroy the land they are supposed to be protecting,”

McKeon believes such strong sentiments are an overreaction and he welcomes the opportunity to work with environmentalists. But he is convinced that doing nothing is not an option.

He told of seeing the aftermath of the severe hurricane and other weather this summer and seeing the devastation of splintered trees lying atop one another.

“That put an exclamation point on it for me,’’ he said.

McKeon, environmentalists to meet over proposed amendments to forestry bill