PEMBERTON TOWNSHIP — The Pinelands Commission has no idea when the state Department of Environmental Protection will reapply to do cut down trees around the fire tower in Bass River Township, an official said Friday.
The DEP has not submitted any paperwork to the commission, other than a letter withdrawing its initial application to clearcut about 16 acres in Bass River State Forest, said commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg at Friday’s meeting.
She said the commission received a letter from Deputy Commissioner Ray Bukowski, saying the state will start the process over with a new application.
“They will start over again, like a new application,” said Wittenberg. “It gets announced, and there is public comment.”
The commission would eventually vote again on a new application.
The commission narrowly voted against allowing the DEP to do the cutting in August, with some commissioners saying they needed more information on alternatives such as use of drones, cameras or other options to spot fires.
Then at last month’s meeting, commissioners voted to extend the application period to collect more information from the DEP about it.
Township residents and others who opposed the tree cutting were angry, saying it allowed the DEP to continue a closed process, but excluded the public from further comment.
Commissioner Mark Lohbauer, who voted against the cutting plan, thanked Bukowski for withdrawing the application and starting over with a new one.
“Ray Bukowski wants to address the public’s questions, and in a public way,” Lohbauer said. “I’m grateful to him for doing that.”
When commissioners rejected the tree cutting plan, it was believed to be the first time the commissioners went against a staff recommendation to 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 of the 80-foot Bass River fire tower by nearby pines that were planted back in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Everyone agrees the white pines and other non-native species were planted with the intention of harvesting them, but residents, local elected officials and hikers have argued the trees are a historic treasure and losing them would create an eyesore that would harm tourism.
Visitors mainly come to the area to camp and hike, they have said, and the tree cutting would affect an area on a popular hiking trail.
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 after commissioners extended the application period to allow DEP to answer additional questions, it was unclear if the issue would go to the court.
Commissioner Chairman Sean Earlen also told the public the record must remain closed to public comment, angering many.
The tower oversees an area of about 50,000 residents — mostly to the east — in places such as Tuckerton and Little Egg Harbor, Bass River and Eagleswood townships.
State 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.