Allow logging in state forests in order to save them?

It's easy to scoff at the idea. And it's never unreasonable to question the motives of state lawmakers.

But an amended bill to allow limited logging on state lands - now called a "forest stewardship" program instead of the original bill's "forest harvest" program - appears to include enough safeguards to prevent anything remotely like the clear-cutting of state forests.

In fact, the amended version, which received bipartisan approval from the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, has been endorsed by the New Jersey Audubon Society, the N.J. Conservation Foundation and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

Environmental support isn't unanimous, however. The N.J. Environmental Federation and the Sierra Club still oppose the measure.

Proponents say large areas of New Jersey's state forests are in poor health, suffering from too many deer, too many invasive species that crowd out native plants and a loss of habitat for native fauna. Forest fires, which allow the land to rejuvenate itself, are nature's way of dealing with the problem. But just letting forest fires burn isn't a very good idea in crowded New Jersey.

Under the bill (A2837/S1085), the state Department of Environmental Protection will identify and prioritize the state-owned lands most in need of stewardship plans. The measure says explicitly that the program's highest priority is the "improvement of the health and vigor of the forest ecosystem." And all stewardship plans would have to be approved by an independent nonprofit third party - the Forest Stewardship Council.

No harvesting will be allowed in sensitive ecological areas unless the DEP agrees in writing that there will be a net environmental benefit. And any harvesting in the Pine Barrens will be subject to all provisions of the Pinelands Protection Act.

Clearly, this is not a bill that would allow the rape of New Jersey's forests by widespread commercial logging.

The N.J. Environmental Federation's main complaint is that the bill does not include any penalties for violating approved stewardship plans. That's a legitimate complaint - and easy for lawmakers to fix.

The bill is sponsored by Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, and Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex. Both are considered to be staunch friends of the environment. It may sound counterintuitive - log the forest in order to save it. But this legislation includes enough safeguards to ensure that it results in the stated goal - healthier New Jersey forests.