By CHASE BRUSH
TRENTON – Commercial logging in New Jersey came one step closer to reality on Monday when the Senate Environmental and Energy Committee advanced a bill that would allow the limited harvesting of trees on nearly 800,000 acres of state-owned land.
But don’t tell that to the bill’s sponsor and committee chair Senator Bob Smith (D-17) (pictured), who claimed it was “not a logging bill.”
“Anyone who calls it logging today will have their fingers cut off,” Smith told a roomful of environmental protection advocates and forestry experts at the hearing earlier today.
The measure (S-1129), which would direct the Department of Environmental Protection to create a $2.7 million “forest stewardship” program to help revive and restore the state’s aging forests through logging in select areas, has split the environmental community over the last few years. Some believe allowing loggers to harvest trees in heavily wooded areas will help let in natural light and spur new growth.
The vote in committee was 3-1-1.
Sen. Kip Bateman (R-16) voted no on the bill, while state Sen. Sam Thompson (R-12) abstained.
Others argue it will open up those lands to money-making commercial operations, damaging the land with heavy machinery and infringing on the public trust.
“Stewardship is just one of those hybrid words that are being used to mask what it’s really all about, which are chainsaws,” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, told PolitickerNJ following the hearing.
All agree, though, that the state’s forest — some 40% of New Jersey’s forested land is publicly owned — are in need of assistance. The state has neglected to maintain many of its woodland areas over the past few decades, both parties say, leading to the disappearance of rare plants and wildlife.
“Not to beat the DEP up too badly — resource issues are always a problem — but our forests are withering,” Smith said.
Under the latest version of the bill, the program would have to adhere to standards developed by the Forest Stewardship Council — an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting responsible management of the world’s forests. But that’s also an issue for opponents of the bill, who claim such requirements are unenforceable.
“We think it’s an issue of separation of powers. The legislation is not enforceable, because they’re using an outside guidance document that cannot be enforced because it’s made by a private entity,” Tittle said.
By that logic it would also be unconstitutional. That was Governor Chris Christie’s opinion on the issue last year, when the bill passed both houses and landed on his table only to receive conditional veto. He said basing the program on the FSC’s standards would require the DEP to “abdicate its responsibility to serve as the state’s environmental steward to a third party.’’
A number of environmental protection agencies expressed support for the bill today, including the New Jersey Audubon Society, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. But many stressed that that support is contingent on the DEP’s adherence to FSC requirements.
“FSC certification should be required for every one of these plants,” said Erica Van Auken, Campaign and Grassroots Coordinator for the NJ Highlands Coalition.