A bill proposed as a benefit for New Jersey’s publicly owned forests has turned environmental leaders against each other over the idea that cutting down trees can help woodlands and make money.

The proposed law would direct the Department of Environmental Protection to develop a plan for harvesting forest products on state lands, excluding the Pinelands area, and also encourage the growth of an economic market for those products.

State Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, Somerset, said he decided to craft and sponsor the bill after a conversation in Cape May County with foresters about the problems facing the state’s nature preserves and parks.

“I saw this as a creative solution to a problem that’s being totally neglected,” said the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

The bill and its Assembly companion, S1954 and A4358, are expected to come to a vote Monday, Jan. 9, the last day of the current legislative session. The Assembly version is being sponsored by Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex.

There is a consensus that the state’s woods have issues because of human activities. Sprawling development, suppressing wildfires, introducing invasive species and killing off natural predators have all kept forests from functioning as they evolved to do.

The law would begin a project to solve these problems by using people to mimic natural processes, removing trees that fires would normally burn away or that have been infested by non-native species that are imperiling native ones.

The Office of Legislative Services estimates such an undertaking could cost $2.7 million after five years based on operating expenses and the need for more employees, but it does not account for any revenue made off the sale of harvested wood products. By supporting an industry for low-grade wood, possibly through renewable energy, the law’s promoters hope the project could pay for itself.

Wildlife conservationists, foresters, sportsmen and farmers have supported the idea, but other environmental groups have opposed it. The disagreement is over the probability that such a plan would be a net benefit or detriment to the state’s forests and species.

“All it’s going to create is people getting up in the morning and looking for places with the most marketable products and making up reasons to harvest them,” said Emile DeVito, manager of science and stewardship for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

DeVito said the science does not support the idea that tree clearing is the best overall way to help the state’s forests. He said that while it may help some rare species, it could harm far more, and he doesn’t believe the right safeguards will be in place.

Supporters said those fears are paranoid. They said state oversight is incredibly stringent, and the idea that unfettered logging would somehow occur is unrealistic.

They also said forest management is occurring nationwide and in limited applications in the state already.

“For folks who think it is somehow new or novel, or a step backward, it’s really a huge step forward,” said Eric Stiles, chief operating officer and vice president of conservation and stewardship for the New Jersey Audubon Society.

“If we don’t have a strong mandate for our state agencies to steward these forests, we know the type of outcome we’re going to get,” Stiles said. “We know the cost of inaction. We are losing populations of species.”

The New Jersey Farm Bureau also has supported the plan, and Executive Director Pete Furey said the state should be looking at forests as a resource and not as if they are museums. He thinks that can be done responsibly.

“We’re up in Trenton every day, and the amount of scrutiny for environmental issues is very high,” Furey said. “Plus, the sponsor of the bill is a champion of environmental causes. I highly doubt he would tolerate a logging-comes-first environmental program.”

Both sides have sent letters to Smith signed by long lists of experts who support their views, although it isn’t yet clear where any of this activity would occur and what would be the requirements for each area of forest being cut. The plan would only be developed after the bill is approved, with supporters believing the controls to protect wildlife and plant life will be tough, and opponents expecting them to not be restrictive enough.

The Pinelands area is the only portion of the state’s forests that is explicitly excluded.

If passed and signed by the governor, the first step would be for the DEP to select a project manager to implement and supervise the program and seek public bids for a five-year contract to conduct the program.

From there, the manager’s duties would be to adopt a management plan through a public process, provide for the cutting and sale of the wood harvested, and create a strategy to develop an economic market for those forest products.

Environmentalists believe the economic aspect is inevitably going to corrupt the process, and they wish there were more safeguards in the bill’s language.

“We just don’t feel that’s the purpose of our public lands,” said DeVito. “The people of New Jersey didn’t set aside those lands to stimulate markets.”

The counterpoint from supporters is that without a plan for active management, those public lands are only worsening. With humans inextricably having affected the forests, they say, humans have a responsibility to restore the natural processes they interrupted.

“It’s high time for the state to have some kind of commitment to a policy,” said Doug Tavella, a state forester.

“We have a lot of work put into it, and it’s the right thing to do for our forests,” Smith said.

Contact Lee Procida:

609-457-8707