Commission Approves Clear-Cutting Bass River Trees for Fire Tower

Apr 17, 2019
Photo by: Pat Johnson SOON TO GO: Historic white pines planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps 90 years ago will be chopped down to improve visibility from the Bass River fire tower.

The Pinelands Commission voted on a resolution to allow the clear-cutting of 16.4 acres of mature white pines in Bass River State Forest to allow for greater visibility for the 80-year-old fire tower.

During the April 12 Pinelands Commission meeting, the vote was close to unanimous. Commissioner Mark Lohbauer cast the one dissenting vote after a passionate plea to his co-commissioners to reject the request from the New Jersey Forest Fire Service of the Department of Environmental Protection.

The recent Spring Hill forest fire that destroyed 11,000 acres in Greenwood State Forest may have played a part in the decision. Indeed, Commission Director Nancy Wittenberg made reference to how busy the forest fire service had been the week before.

Lohbauer thanked the service for responding to questions that had been raised by the public and the commissioners during the yearlong debate over allowing the white pine forest destruction. But one question had not been answered: the potential cost incurred to clear-cut the seven areas in the forest as opposed to relocating or rebuilding a new fire tower.

“Certainly the forest fire service has the experience to tell us what they need, and what they need is a clear visibility for the fire tower. They state there are no satisfactory alternatives in their opinions – no drones, cameras or sensors – to a manned fire tower. And I accept that they need a fire tower that allows them to view the scene and work within the scene. But I don’t agree with the staff’s conclusion that clear-cutting 16.4 acres of mature trees is necessary to achieve that end.”

Lohbauer said there are other options that would allow the service to have the visibility that it needs: They could build a new tower. Although the service has said it would be cost prohibitive, it has still not answered the question of how much clear-cutting 16.4 acres will cost. Another option would be to relocate the tower to a higher elevation 5 miles away from the current location. Or if cutting is the only feasible option, another option would be to top the trees rather than clear-cut them.

Lohbauer and others who spoke later noted the remaining trees will only grow taller in a few years to obstruct the view again, and the service would be back to ask for more tree cutting, perhaps as much as the 81 acres they first proposed.

“We recognize that wildfires happen in the pinelands and are extraordinarily dangerous and pose a great risk to life and property such as the recent Spring Hill fire that burned 11,000 acres of the pinelands,” said Lohbauer. “But is it necessary to sacrifice these trees? Shouldn’t the state say it’s worth the expense to build or relocate a new fire tower?”

Lohbauer also stated that he believes the public has a right to appeal decisions made by the Pinelands Commission and the DEP, although the commission’s attorney has said the public does not, based on a 1993 change in administrative law procedures. “I encourage the right of the public to bring appeals. I believe the public does have the right to appeal,” he stated.

Commissioner Richard Prickett spoke in favor of the clear-cut. “Every time a fire erupts in the pinelands, it’s a major issue for the public. They panic. I think the only alternative at this point is to vote yes.”

Commissioner Gary Quinn said he was prepared to vote yes, but in the future he would like to see more communication between the forest fire service, the DEP and the Pinelands Commission members. “You do communicate with our staff, but we’d like you to communicate with us.”

Commissioner Jordan Howell agreed with that statement. “Although we are prepared to move forward with this today, I hope it’s not the case that we will see you again in a couple of years with another request. We need to take the time to discuss a better plan on how we move forward.”

Howell partially quoted John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and quoted another conservationist, Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. forest fire service, “Conservation means the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men,” as a point of compromise.

He also stated he trusted the forest fire service to “have a level of integrity to tell us the truth … I defer to their expertise.”

During the public portion of the meeting Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said Muir stated, “The forest and the wilderness are the cathedrals of nature. And when you destroy that forest, it’s a desecration.”

“In your decision on Bass River, you got it ‘bass backwards,’” he said.

Tittel said the Pinelands Commission needs to develop a plan for forest fire protection and make it part of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan. Technology such as sensors and cameras can enhance the forest fire service’s fire towers to get to fires that are smoldering or are started at night, when fire tower searches are useless.

He also suggested the commission make better use of its abilities to plan by disallowing development in high hazard areas where people are put in harm’s way.

Carl Swansea, a Bass River resident, has sent the Pinelands Commission detailed plans to move the tower to a higher location. He spoke hypothetically about the existing tower. “When you have a structure that is claimed to be in good condition, and your staff is provided with that information, but the structure has corrosion in significant parts on the structure that has been covered over with layers of paint, it’s your responsibility to do your due diligence and investigate.”

According to a Jan. 24 letter to the Pinelands Commission by the forest fire service, the plans are to do the tree cutting in two phases. It could start any time, but site preparation for reforesting will be done between May 16 and Sept. 30 when snakes are active, so they can move out of the way of drum chopping or wood disking.

According to the forest fire service’s plan, some of the wood from the harvested trees “will be repurposed and used to construct interpretive kiosks to elucidate the CCC’s (Civilian Conservation Corps) efforts in not only planting the trees, but also constructing the Bass River Fire Tower back in 1937 to protect the resource and the neighboring communities from the threat of wildfire.”

— Pat Johnson

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