A Plan to Log a New Jersey Wilderness Preserve Divides Environmentalists

Supporters say selective clear-cutting will create habitat for imperiled birds. Opponents believe it’s a ruse for commercial timber harvesting.

The golden-winged warbler is disappearing from New Jersey. (Photo: Laura Erickson/Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Jun 29, 2016· 7 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

SPARTA TOWNSHIP, New Jersey—On a recent early summer morning, the chirps and trills of songbirds filled the air as our group of around two dozen walked down a dirt access road into a forest in northern New Jersey. The leaves formed a dense green canopy high above our heads, filtering out most of the warm sun. “Bear tracks,” said one man, pointing to a row of paw marks drying into the damp earth. We stepped carefully to avoid crushing them with our hiking boots.

We were on a walk into the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area, a 3,461-acre state-owned nature preserve about 50 miles northwest of Manhattan and about 30 miles due east of the Delaware River and the Pennsylvania border. The preserve is nestled amid a dozen or more preserves and parks running across the state’s northern mountains, in a region called the New Jersey Highlands. This lofty 100-year-old forest is in the heart of a swath of unbroken, mature forestland that is rare in America’s most densely populated state, all of it sitting above an aquifer that provides drinking water for 6 million residents.

Although it’s a relatively small chunk of New Jersey’s roughly 740,000 acres of publicly owned forestland, Sparta Mountain is also at the center of a controversial management proposal, prepared by New Jersey Audubon for the state Department of Environmental Protection, that would allow up to 10 percent of the preserve’s forest to be cut over the next 10 years by state-contracted loggers. While some plots would have trees selectively removed, others would be clear-cut to create multi-acre thickets of young trees surrounded by older forest.

The plan is roiling the state’s environmentalists—and it reflects a larger debate in the Northeast about how to manage the region’s resurgent forests, which have regrown in the past century to cover the greatest area seen since colonial times. Advocates say that cuts are necessary because the forest, which is composed of evenly aged trees ranging from 65 to 100 years old, lacks the habitats needed by diverse wildlife species, including the birds and bats that everyone agrees are on the decline. The even ages of the trees also make them vulnerable to a catastrophe such as parasites or extreme weather.

The proposed plan would allow for “selective thinning in areas where there are trees of predominantly the same age class,” said Robert Geist, communications coordinator with the NJDEP’s Division of Natural and Historic Resources. “The main point of this plan is forest management and making sure that we have a healthy forest for generations there today and generations to come.”

Opponents of the plan argue that New Jersey cannot afford to lose any of its mature forest. “New Jersey is one of the last states to start signing up for the ‘young forests’ initiative on public land,” said ecologist Emile DeVito, the manager of science and stewardship for the New Jersey Conservation Association, which opposes the proposal, as do the New Jersey Highlands Coalition and the state’s chapter of the Sierra Club. “Most other Northeastern states have adopted this idea that there needs to be a lot more young forest on the landscape, [but] when you bring it down to New Jersey, the main problem is you don’t have a lot of intact forest. We’ve done all we can to slow down fragmentation in the Highlands.”

Opponents also worry that the plan is a veiled effort to bring commercial logging to New Jersey’s forests. Julia Somers, the director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, believes that with the Sparta Mountain proposal, “the DEP is trying to monetize state lands.”

RELATED: Size Does Matter When It Comes to Saving Forests

“It’s a philosophical idea that they should be making money from state lands,” she said, rather than assessing their value based on recreational uses, clean air and water, or biodiversity conservation. “They don’t see the value in the public enjoyment of places that have not been harvested.”

Somers allows that some active management of the forest is probably necessary, but her group has criticized the attention that the proposal gives to commercial forestry, such as the preserve’s proximity to commercial rail transportation that could serve “to transport forest products in the future.”

“We don’t believe they should be harvesting product,” Somers said. “If you take that as your guide, it completely changes the impact of what you’re going to be doing.”

Geist denied the charge. “A lot of people when they think logging, they think northern Michigan or northern Maine. This is not that,” he said.

It’s unclear at this stage whether the state would pay contractors to do the work or expect them to generate revenue from selling the wood they cut on Sparta Mountain. “It does cost money to remove the trees,” Geist said. “The people who remove the trees are free to do what they want with that. If that means making some money, that’s OK. We don’t expect people to work for free.”

That position is echoed by John Cecil, vice president for stewardship at New Jersey Audubon and a leader of our June morning hike, along with colleague Donald Donnelly, a stewardship project director-forester with New Jersey Audubon. Neither rule out a logging contractor making some money off the trees they would cut under the management proposal, although they too refute that the results would amount to creating a commercial logging industry in New Jersey.

But many of the people who have turned out for the walk—community members concerned that the plan will harm the forest, regional water quality, and local wildlife—look unconvinced.

Sharon Wander of Newton, who with her husband, Wade, has worked for decades as an environmental consultant in the state, is one of these skeptics.

“This forest has a complete suite of organisms, up to bobcats and barred owls,” she said as we walked. “That is usually taken as an indicator of a healthy forest.”

Wander is also concerned that the plan does not offer the sorts of documentation and protections of streams, wetlands, or vernal pools that would be required in a commercial development project, or firm plans for monitoring them. “There are pristine waterways up there that go into public water supplies,” she said. “Serious research has demonstrated that when you do clear-cuts, you have tremendous loss of soil nutrients into nearby waterways. Nutrient levels can be affected for decades. And they’re not monitoring because they say they are not doing anything bad. But they should be.”

She also believes that creating big gaps in the forest could lead to big problems with invasive species. “You’ve got wild sarsaparilla and all these forest plants” that are vulnerable to disturbance, she said. “Alien plants are going to get in there that were never in there before.”

The proposal notes the presence of about 50 rare or endangered plants in the Sparta Mountain preserve that the proposed cuts would have to work around or promote, as well as 41 species of vulnerable wildlife. The one that has come up most often among both defenders and detractors of the plan is the golden-winged warbler, a songbird that summers and breeds in North American forests and winters in Central America and northern Colombia. The species’ eastern U.S. population has declined by 90 percent over the past 40 to 50 years, said Ron Rohrbaugh, assistant director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and loss of young forest habitat in its summer nesting grounds is one reason why.

In the bird’s eastern United States range, “we have a lot of early successional forest that has grown up into mature forest because of current land use practices and the way we manage our forests,” Rohrbaugh said. “We just don’t have the amount of young forest that golden-winged warblers need to breed in.”

In the preserve, Donnelly and Cecil bring the group to a brushy thicket of bushes and saplings that barely hit the five-foot-tall mark. It’s the site of a 13-acre clear-cut that the state made in consultation with Audubon during the winter of 2013.

Three years later, the growth is “still a little young for pure golden-winged warblers,” Donnelly said, which like their forests in the five- to six-year range, apparently. But blue-winged warblers and blue-golden hybrids have been sighted in the thicket, and he seems pleased with the diverse array of trees growing in. He names tulip poplar; sumac; red, black, scarlet, and white oak; black birch; hickory; cherry; and red maple. The location of this cut, near a power line right-of-way where golden-winged warblers have been known to nest, makes him and his colleagues optimistic that the species will move in.

“When they fledge their young, they move them into the mature forest,” said Rohrbaugh of the warblers. “So it’s important to have this patchwork, this shifting mosaic of habitats and structures, so the birds can move into one or the other over their breeding cycle.”

Although there is a stream and a wetland downslope of this cut, Donnelly and Cecil say there have been no signs of erosion or sediment loading since the cut. We’ve seen nonnative mugwort plants along the dirt road, but Donnelly said that invasive plants are far from problematic in the cut, making up less than 5 percent of the regrowth. Greater than that “would trigger an herbicide treatment,” he said.

There were around 100 breeding pairs of golden-winged warblers in New Jersey in the 1990s, said Cecil. Now there are about 25 pairs, and half of them are using the rights-of-way under power lines for nesting—vulnerable areas because utility companies are legally required to keep undergrowth no higher than three feet.

While they are still waiting for a firm sign that the cut is attracting golden-winged warblers, Sharon Petzinger, a senior zoologist and a 15-year veteran with the DEP, tells the group that since 2014, she’s seen a jump in the diversity of avian species in the area. She has recorded 28 bird species—including gray catbirds, prairie warblers, towhees, scarlet tanagers, buntings, field sparrows, and indigo buntings—compared with 14 to 16 in the interior forest and around 20 in typical Sparta Mountain wetland.

Sharon Petzinger, a zoologist with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, holds a gray catbird captured at a monitoring site in the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area. The species prefers nesting in thickets of young trees rather than older forests. (Photo: Emily J. Gertz)

“These managed sites are amazing compared to the shrubby wetlands. Species diversity is increasing,” she told us.

Rohrbaugh cautioned that the warbler’s decline will not be stopped solely by actions in New Jersey or the United States. “We all think of these birds as ‘our birds,’ and we must be to blame if they’re declining. But they spend much more time on their wintering grounds in Central America and in Colombia, where deforestation could be reducing overwintering survival,” he said.

Critics of the plan are skeptical of its goals for conserving golden-winged warblers. “The golden-winged warbler has all of a sudden become this poster bird for ‘Let’s manage for a rare species,’ ” said DeVito.

But the bird’s disappearance from New Jersey cannot be stopped, he said, because climate change is making the state’s forests more hospitable to a competing species. “They have all been replaced with the blue-winged warbler, its southern counterpart, which is both taking over its habitat and hybridizing with the golden-winged warbler,” DeVito said. As average global temperatures rise, “the effective elevation of our habitats is going down,” he said, which is forcing the warbler and other birds to shift northward.

A "Stop the Chop" lawn sign in front of a home near New Jersey's Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area, where a proposed management plan would see up to 10 percent of the preserve's trees cut over 10 years. (Photo: Emily J. Gertz)

“I’m the last one that wants to see the golden-winged warbler disappear” from New Jersey, DeVito said, “but it’s not like it’s going to go extinct.”

Advocates like Cecil and Rohrbaugh counter that managing for where the bird is now, as well as where it may be in the future, are equally important to its survival. These forests are not meant to be static and unchanging, said Rohrbaugh. “Because processes like fires and beavers have all been changed by humans,” he said, “we have to try and mimic these natural processes, and sometimes that means cutting trees.”