Cutting and removing trees from county parks and state land has traditionally been forbidden in New Jersey, but that is changing in Atlantic County and elsewhere now that woods have become thick with dead trees from last June's derecho thunderstorms.
Fallen timber creates greater forest fire threats, and removal can be costly for taxpayers. In response, Atlantic County has introduced an ordinance that would restore a practice that, in response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, once allowed residents to clear downed or dead trees from county parks. A public hearing and final vote are scheduled for next month.
Meanwhile, a bill in the state Assembly would award contracts, through a bidding process, to companies to carry out the thinning out of live trees from state lands under a program monitored by the Department of Environmental Protection.
Atlantic County's proposed ordinance outlines rules and fees associated with collecting wood from downed trees in parks and sets a limit on how much can be taken per visit.
The permit includes a $20 fee per visit and allows residents a maximum of three loads per season. A load is defined as a cord, or 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet, Atlantic County Administrator Jerry DelRosso said.
The ordinance was spurred by a letter from a Mays Landing resident who was interested in collecting wood from downed trees after the derecho last year.
In his October letter, James Scallan Jr. told county Executive Dennis Levinson the wood he saw on Mays Landing Road was exactly what he needed. He saw it was on county property and went to the website to find out what the rules were to obtain it.
The website listed requirements for a special application, but when he called the Division of Parks and Recreation, Scallan said he was told "the policy had changed," and "the website was in error." Liability issues were cited as the reason behind the policy change.
Levinson said the policy was in effect until about 20 years ago; it began after the energy crisis led to the re-emergence of wood-burning stoves.
People at the time were concerned with increased fuel prices, scarcity and "the fear of having only one source of fuel," said Thomas Houpt III, owner of the Fireplace Shanty in Mays Landing. He said that was when is father first got into the business.
"People saw gas lines and became aware of our dependence on foreign oil. Oil prices went up, gas muscle cars died, and home heating costs went up. Wood stoves became more popular," Houpt said.
The popularity of the stoves created a larger demand for wood, and residents frequented the parks to get firewood, Levinson said. Soon the number of people became a problem and some were cutting down in areas they shouldn't have been or were not skilled enough to properly fell a tree.
The increasing dangers and proliferation of people eventually put an end to the program - "but that never stopped people from being people," and some have been seen retrieving fallen trees since the storms last year, Levinson said. As a result, the new ordinance highlights the county is indemnified and requires applicants to show proof of insurance.
Houpt said that there seems to be an increase in the wood stove industry due to similar factors as in the 1970s, "but also with the recent storms people want to have an infallible backup," he said.
Levinson stressed that the only trees allowed to be taken out of the park will be trees on the ground or those that are broken. There are no penalties listed in the ordinance, but Levinson said if anyone is caught breaking the rules they will be disallowed to participate in the program. If a repeat offender is found then stricter measures such as charges of trespassing may be sought, he said.
The county will vote on the ordinance at a July 2 meeting.
Cumberland and Cape May Counties don't have rules governing fallen trees.
In Cumberland, any fallen trees are left by the side of the road and can be picked up by residents, said Don Olbrich, director of public works.
"If it's out there they can have it. And it saves us from having to dispose of it in Department of Environmental Protection-approved sites," he said.
His comments were mirrored by Levinson, who said that residents are "doing us a service by taking out the trees."
Cape May County clears out fallen trees and loose twigs or branches, especially in areas frequented by pedestrians - such as the Cape May County Park and Zoo - according to county spokeswoman Lenora Boninfante.
The new Atlantic County ordinance coincides with a state bill that would allow logging of state-owned land, excluding the Pinelands area.
Citing the benefits of controlling the areas near homes where forest fires are likely, as well as developing a market for the wood, or "renewable biomass," the bill (A-2837) states clearing out of trees would create jobs and a new revenue stream for the state.
The program would be headed by the Department of Environmental Protection, which would oversee the thinning of state-owned lands by ensuring compliance with current laws, identifying sites, and ensuring no heritage or sensitive ecological sites are affected.
The bill outlines the bidding process for contractors as well as the appointment of a project manager to implement the rules and directly oversee the processes in the program.
All revenues for the program would be deposited into a dedicated, nonlapsing special account within the Department of Environmental Protection.
The funds would cover the reasonable costs of implementing the program, and any remaining money would be deposited into a special account in the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust, "to be used only for restoration projects to increase biodiversity, or to enhance habitat for rare, threatened or endangered flora or fauna," according to the bill.
The bill was introduced in the Assembly's Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on May 10 and had been transferred to the Assembly Budget Committee as of June 13.
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