'Cutting down a tree is not a bad thing'

Environmentalists argue for pro-active trimming measures in the Pinelands
(Published: Monday, June 16, 2008)

PEMBERTON TOWNSHIP - The paper used to print this newspaper every day is trucked in from mills in Canada and Tennessee.

It used to come from mills in New Jersey, but where there once were dozens of mills throughout the state, there are now very few. Today there are forests in place of those factories, and the state Pinelands Commission protects more than 1 million acres of forested land in seven counties.

This disturbs people such as Robert R. Williams, the vice president of forestry operations for Land Dimensions Engineering of Glassboro, Gloucester County. Humanity has not curbed its use of wood products, he says while walking through the woods in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest in Burlington County. The wood just comes from somewhere else.

Demand for wood around the world is soaring, and while New Jersey has preserved hundreds of acres, areas the size of Panama are deforested each year around the world.

This is an old argument for Williams, who has been hard at work for years lobbying legislators and regulators to change their approach to managing the state's forests. But as the country begins to reconcile its environmental needs with its economic needs, he hopes his words will stop falling on deaf ears.

"Disturbance is what drives the system," he said, standing on top of a tree felled by a tornado a few years ago to illustrate his point. "It's positive for the ecosystem."

Williams' company advocates for using more aggressive techniques, such as controlled burnings and tree thinning, to improve ecological stability.

He claims the hands-off approach that intuitively seems best for the environment is not the most responsible at all. He says it is a complex issue, but recent and ongoing research demonstrates ecosystems can be improved by cutting trees and creating more diverse habitats in our forests.

The added benefit, he said, is that the cut trees can be used to supply a niche industry, one that doesn't include the added carbon imprint from shipping those wood products in from around the world.

"I think the problem is people don't understand that cutting down a tree is not necessarily a bad thing," said Beth Ciuzio, stewardship project director for the New Jersey Audubon Society.

Ciuzio says the Audubon Society is one of several groups that are growing more conscious of the positive effects of managing forests rather then letting them sit untouched. She points out that several species, such as the red-headed woodpecker and northeastern pine snake, benefit from habitats with fewer trees and more disturbed area.

Williams' ideas are steadily receiving better reception in the state as well. A proposed project would see the state thin the pinelands in the 100,000 acres around the Warren Grove gunnery range - the epicenter of a major fire last year that affected both Ocean and Burlington counties - and create buffers along several dirt roads that run through the forest. But the Pinelands Commission says it is careful do anything too radical from its current positions.

Pinelands spokesman Paul Leakan says any forest management activities must be carried out in a way that is not detrimental to the environment and protects the region's resources.

Nevertheless, there is a growing recognition that something must be done. With paper and lumber prices increasing with demand, endangered species struggling and forest fires an annual event, the need to take active steps in managing forests is becoming more evident.

"People believe nature will heal itself," said Jim Barresi, state forester with the Department of Environmental Protection's Forest Service. "That's part of the problem."

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