BASS RIVER TOWNSHIP — The state Department of Environmental Protection is withdrawing its application to the Pinelands Commission to cut down about 16 acres of trees around the Bass River Fire Tower to improve visibility for fire spotters, spokeswoman Caryn Shinske said Thursday.

DEP will resubmit a new application for what it believes is “an important public safety project ... (that) will include additional public information for consideration by the commissioners and for public comment,” Shinske wrote in a statement.

In August, the commission narrowly voted against giving DEP permission to cut the trees in Bass River State Forest, even though commission staff had recommended allowing the cutting for public safety reasons.

The vote was six to approve, with one no and four abstentions. It needed eight yes votes to pass.

It was believed to be the first time the commissioners went against a staff recommendation and did not approve a public development project requested by another state agency.

The DEP’s Forest Fire Service has said fire spotters’ views are blocked on three sides by nearby pines that have grown to the tower’s 80-foot height.

The issue was supposed to go to the Office of Administrative Law, to determine after a hearing whether the clear cutting could go forward and whether its scope should change.

But commissioners decided to extend the DEP application period to allow DEP to answer additional questions in closed session Oct. 12, opening up the possibility of another vote. However, they also decided the record must remain closed on the matter and would not allow the public to speak further.

That angered many people in the public.

DEP’s decision to withdraw the application means a new application will go through the public process again, giving members of the public additional time to express their views and ask questions.

Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin has said he expects the aging fire tower, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937, to continue being used for the next five to 10 years. So should a tree-cutting plan eventually move forward, it is likely another fire-spotting method will have to soon be found at the location just west of the Garden State Parkway on East Greenbush Road.

The tower oversees an area of about 50,000 residents — mostly to the east — in places such as Little Egg Harbor Township, Tuckerton, Bass River and Eagleswood Township.

The state has looked into replacing the tower with a 120-foot structure. Some of the 20 other towers in the state are 100 feet or more. But the state got one quote saying it would cost about $500,000, officials have said.

The area has seen some devastating fires, including nine that burned 30,100 acres since 1999, according to the state. Nearby fires in 1936 and 1977 each killed firefighters, who are honored with a memorial near the tower.

Township officials, residents and outdoorspeople had objected to the tree cutting, saying the DEP should consider raising the tower, building a new one or using new technology such as drones or cameras to spot fires.

They argued clear cutting so many acres near and on popular hiking trails would create an eyesore and hurt tourism there, which is heavily dependent on campers and hikers. They also said the trees were a historical treasure, having been planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 20th century.

DEP had argued the trees were white pines established in plantations intended to be harvested. White pines are not native to the Pinelands, and DEP said it would replace them with native trees that wouldn’t grow as high.

Contact: 609-272-7219 mpost@pressofac.com Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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