Credit: (AP Photo / Wayne Parry)
Photo file: Snow-covered pines in New Jersey Pinelands, Ocean County

For the country’s most populous state, it is almost characteristic that New Jersey still has nearly 2 million acres of forest land. However, whether these forests are well managed, most of which are in private hands, has been the subject of intense debate over the past two decades.

The issue has not been resolved yet. But a newly formed task force will try to determine how the state can best manage its forests, which is crucial in an era of accelerating climate change that threatens healthy and diverse forests.

“We’ve been trying to develop a good forestry program for the last 20 years,” said Sen. Bob Smith, chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, which set up the task force, naming four co-chairs. “We are not there yet. Our forests are under threat. “

There are many good reasons to protect and improve the state’s forests: they are critical to protecting drinking water supplies, conserving critical habitat for wildlife, and providing recreational opportunities for the public.

“But they are more than that – it’s a place to hike and celebrate nature, the indigenous cultural heritage and a big part of the climate change decision,” said Angeli Ramos Busot, director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey and co-chair of the task force. .

CO2 capture

At a time when the climate crisis is exacerbating, forests also perform an immediate function, saving many tons of carbon from greenhouse gas emissions in their trees and soil. The New Jersey Department of the Environment estimates forests, wetlands and farmland at 8.1 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Environmentalists object, the measure would mean more logging and more habitat loss

“We can’t afford to lose any of these carbon-storing natural areas,” said Tom Gilbert, another co-chair of the new task force and co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “We need to step up conservation efforts.” Other co-chairs of the task force are Eileen Murphy, vice president of liaison with the New Jersey government, Audubon, and Andy Bennett, a board member of the New Jersey Forestry Association.

The DEP’s plan to achieve an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2006 levels by 2050 includes the goal of achieving another 2 to 3 million metric tons of carbon sequestration per year through active management, improvement and protection of the state’s natural and working lands. .

Increasing carbon capacity

“The goal is not to lose the carbon that is already stored in the woods, but to figure out how to store” millions more metric tons, Gilbert said. Proposed strategies include reforestation, avoiding natural land conversion, intensifying the restoration of salt marshes and seagrass, and improving sequestration of agricultural land.

About 40% of New Jersey is covered by forests; 62% are privately owned and 38% are state-owned.

Most of its threats to forests are well recognized. These include forest fires, forest pests such as gypsy moth and encroaching development. Another potential threat – how much, if any, logging can be allowed on these lands – has divided environmentalists in the past.

According to scientists, climate change is creating higher temperatures and deeper droughts. These conditions are likely to increase the frequency and intensity of forest fires, especially in South Jersey in the Pinelands with an area of ​​1 million acres. There were 900 wildfires in New Jersey last year, a number that Department of Democracy Commissioner Sean Laturet called shocking.

Calling the task force, Smith turned to an option used in the past to bring together experts in the field to try to reach consensus on complex environmental issues. This worked when the task force reached an agreement to expand access to beaches in the state, but failed to reach a compromise on issues with claims of damage to natural resources.

Smith said he hoped the task force could reach a consensus on how to move forward in forest management by the end of the year and propose reforms that could form the basis for future legislation.

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