PEMBERTON TOWNSHIP — A controversial Department of Environmental Protection project to clear-cut 16 acres of historic white pines in Bass River Township to improve visibility at a state fire tower there got almost unanimous approval Friday from the Pinelands Commission.
“We don’t take this decision lightly. We have to prioritize human safety,” said Ray Bukowski, assistant commissioner of natural and historic resources for the DEP, after the vote. He said the next step is to go out to bid for the job, and the state won’t know until it receives the bids if it will cost money, break even or make money for the state.
The DEP’s Forest Fire Service had argued it needed to cut the trees for fire spotters in the tower to properly protect life and property in southern Ocean County and eastern Burlington County.
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Local government officials, residents and some environmentalists argued other options should have been pursued, such as replacing or moving the almost 90-year-old tower or using other technological means for spotting fires.
The white pines are not native to the state’s Pinelands but were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. A popular hiking trail at Bass River State Forest, the Orange trail, runs through them, and locals call the area the “cathedral of trees,” since the pines grow 80 feet tall or more.
Commissioners said they hoped the DEP would work with them to come up with a plan to address the problem around the fire tower without cutting more trees in the future.
The DEP originally requested permission to cut more than 80 acres of trees for visibility, said Commissioner Mark Lohbauer, the only commissioner to vote against the approval.
“The ones they don’t cut today will be obstructions in a few years. They will be back to us in a few years to remove more trees,” warned Lohbauer.
“I’m glad I was here today,” said Bukowski, who said he takes the commissioners’ and public’s concerns seriously. “The message was well received.”
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Also Friday, the commission gave approval for the South Jersey Transportation Authority to stop maintaining about 290 acres in the northeastern section of Atlantic City International Airport as habitat for threatened and endangered grassland birds.
The SJTA will pay the commission $500,000 a year for six years — a total of $3 million — to use for land preservation and acquisition, under the agreement with the commission. It will also replace the bird habitat with at least 62 acres of appropriate habitat, said SJTA Executive Director Stephen Dougherty.
In exchange, it will be permitted to replant sod grass and keep it mowed to 6-10 inches in height all season. While it may attract geese and other problem birds, they can be discouraged through use of loud noises and other things, said Camden County Commissioner Jordan Howell, an environmental and sustainability studies professor at Rowan University.
It was the first meeting for Atlantic County’s newly appointed commissioner, Jerome Irick, a Buena farmer and engineer. He recently replaced longtime commissioner and blueberry farmer Paul Galletta, of Hammonton.