Photo taken in early 2016 showing trees felled near Sparta Mountain by the state DEP
Photo by Vera Olinski
BY ERIKA NORTON
SPARTA - Opponents of the state’s plan to cut acres of trees in the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area have come out in full swing in 2017, including gubernatorial candidate Sen. Raymond Lesniak.
The state Department of Environmental Protection, in conjunction with the New Jersey Audubon Society, say their plan to cut roughly 20 to 30 acres on Sparta Mountain annually is necessary to diversify the forest and create “young forest habitat” endangered species in the area need to thrive. The plan would encompass 3,400 acres of land within the townships of Sparta, Ogdensburg, and Hardyston in Sussex County and Jefferson Township in Morris County.
Opponents see the plan as a logging scheme disguised as a forest stewardship plan, and feel cutting down trees would have an overall negative effect on an area 70 percent of the state depends on for water. A “Stop the Chop” meeting was held at the Franklin Firehouse Jan. 26, sponsored by the Friends of Sparta Mountain group, which included environmental speakers as well as Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth), who was first to speak.
“Even though I’m a city boy, that doesn’t mean I don’t care about natural resources,” Lesniak said. “If I have to, I’ll go to court to save your folks forest. I’ll get down to the bottom of it and I’ll be with you all the way and we’re going to stop this, I guarantee it.”
According to Lesniak, the plan will disrupt Sparta Mountain, a precious natural resource preserved as public land by Green Acres Funds, and in the process, endanger a source of drinking water for more than 6.2 million New Jersey residents. Lesniak has been involved in other environmental issues in Elizabeth, and was named “Legislator of the Year” by the Sierra Club, an environmental group that has been one of the main vocal opponents of the Sparta Mountain Plan.
Lesniak has introduced legislation that would stop the Sparta Mountain Plan.
“I was very supportive of the New Jersey Highlands Act and will not allow the current NJDEP administration disrupt this precious area of the Highlands,” Lesniak said in a statement.
Other speakers at the Jan. 26 meeting included Dr. Eric Kiviat from Hudsonia Ltd., Drew University Professor Sara Webb, Pinelands Preservation Alliance’s Dr. Ryan Rebozo, Executive Director Julia Somers and Policy Chair Elliot Ruga of the NJ Highlands Coalition and Eastern Conservation Advisors’ Dennis Miranda. Four members of the Hardyston Town Council were also in attendance as well as three people from NJ Audubon Society.
Plan statusNJDEP Spokesperson Bob Considine and John Cecil of the NJ Audubon Society both said said the DEP has gone through the comments submitted by the public last year. Cecil said he believes the DEP will likely finalize the plan by the end of February and a public meeting to discuss any revisions or changes will be held in March.
In response to the “Stop the Chop” meeting, Cecil said he thinks the project, which has begun in other parts of the Sparta Wildlife Management Area, will continue to be successful, “it’s just unfortunate that there’s so much confusion around it.”
“It’s troubling to me that those groups don’t seem to have processed the information that’s being provided to them. There were a number of presentations made at that meeting two weeks, many of them were very broad in their representation of the issues and those that spoke to any specifics tended to bring examples from other parts of the country forward as an attempt to offer a reason why the Sparta plan shouldn’t move forward. And I don’t think that those were fair comparisons.”
Cecil said that forestry projects in other parts of the country could be very different than the one for Sparta Mountain. While nearby states such as New York and Pennsylvania move forward with initiatives in habitat management areas to create habitat for endangered wildlife through forestry projects, “New Jersey is stuck because of this outcry and lack of awareness on the part of, I would attribute that to a couple of conservation organizations.”
When a project is implemented, residents around the property are rightfully concerned about changes in their environment, Cecil said, but usually working with the community and having a dialogue will ease certain concerns.
“But here, we have nonprofit organizations that have gotten in the middle and I think are manipulating the truth and that’s the unfortunate part of this project,” Cecil said. “The science is sound that underpins it despite the fact that they're able to find to come out that have some credentials but they come out and speak against it and are often citing examples that are really inappropriate comparisons for the Sparta Mountain project.”
Greg Gorman, the Conservation Chair for the NJ Sierra Club Chapter and Skylands Group opposes the Sparta Mountain plan. From his persepctive, the combination of steep slopes, thin soil with the proposed clear cuts will result in “ecological impairment.”
Gorman says that the need for establishing “young forest” habitat within the Sparta Mountain area is questionable because over 200 acres of young forest exists or is planned on private landholding in the vicinity. The Weldon Brook Wildlife Management Area also maintains a 629 acre Golden Winged Warbler Habitat, one of the species mentioned in the Sparta Mountain plan.
“The Forest Stewardship Plan is premised on an unhealthy forest due to the lack of young forest,” according to Gorman, “however, the high diversity of plant and animal life including over 80 threatened and endangered species and the presence of bobcat, bear, and raptors are indicators of an effective food chain typical of a healthy forest.”
So far, no lawsuits have been filed over the DEP’s plan, but Cecil said hopefully in the coming months, the DEP will have more finalized information to bring to the public.