BASS RIVER TOWNSHIP — The New Jersey Forest Fire Service readily admits it can’t see the forest for the trees.
Even when fire spotters climb to the top of the 80-foot Bass River State Forest fire tower, their view is blocked on three sides by nearby pines that have grown to the tower’s height.
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.
That’s why the state has a plan to clear-cut about 19 acres of white pine and other conifers that are causing the problem, said Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin, as he showed a reporter and photographer the view from the tower.
There was a clear view to the horizon to the west, allowing a spotter to see a plume of smoke rise out of the trees, and find it in contrast to the dark forest. But a wall of trees blocked the long view on the other three sides.
“No. 1 is the eye in the sky,” said McLaughlin, who said high-tech cameras and other equipment are being tested, but still can’t replace an experienced human spotter.
But Bass River’s governing body opposes the plan, as do some environmentalists and hikers.
Mayor Deborah Buzby Cope said the state should replace the aged tower, which is 10 years past its expected lifespan, with a taller one.
“How long is (the current tower) going to last?” Buzby Cope asked. “If they are going to continue using the towers, I feel we should put a newer tower in there instead of just clearing out the trees.”
The state looked into replacing the tower, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937, with a 120-foot structure. Some others in the state are 100 feet or more. But the state got one quote saying it would cost about $500,000, officials have said.
New Jersey Forest Service Chief Todd Wyckoff said the state will go out to bid for the cutting, which he expects to be done for the paper or chipped-wood trade.
It shouldn’t cost taxpayers anything, but probably won’t bring in much income either, he said.
Safety is a big priority, Buzby Cope said, and the area has seen some bad fires. That includes nine that have burned 30,100 acres since 1999, according to the state.
Nearby fires in 1936 and 1977 each killed several firefighters, who are honored with a memorial off East Greenbush Avenue near the tower.
McLaughlin said the structure could be considered old, but the state has maintained it and its 20 other fire towers as well. They are painted regularly, stairs have been replaced and additional braces installed.
It has not been examined by a structural engineer to determine how long it can be safely used, he said. But fire spotters know it well and report any problems they see.
He expects the tower to continue being used for the next five to 10 years.
Wyckoff said the only trees to be cut are in plantations planted in the early 20th century with the intention of harvesting them. They would be replaced with native tree species that would not grow as tall.
A 4-acre cutting project was done about 20 years ago, and also generated controversy, he said.
The cutting plan still has to go before the Pinelands Commission for permits, where it will get a public hearing, Wyckoff said.
Some members of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance have contacted the group about their opposition, but the alliance hasn’t opposed it, Executive Director Carleton Montgomery said.
If it’s necessary for the continued use of the tower, “in our view the state should do it. But to the least possible extent,” Montgomery said. “These were trees mostly planted for future harvesting. They are not native plants.”
There will be minimal effect on one trail, and none on the campground built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, according to the DEP.
About 0.16 miles — or 4 percent — of the Orange CCC Trail would be affected, said DEP spokeswoman Caryn Shinske.
Environmental scientist Katie Jaeckel, of Sussex County, said people who know the forest use more than just marked trails for horseback riding, hiking and biking. Many of their favorite areas will be affected, she said.
She grew up near Bass River State Forest, visits regularly and also wants a new tower built.
What isn’t at issue is the need for fire spotters.
They don’t just detect fires, McLaughlin said. They also provide vital information to firefighters on the ground, like where the escape routes and safety zones are, and how the weather and wind are changing.
“Do you see that plume of smoke out there?” asked McLaughlin, pointing to the north from the top of the tower. Trees blocked a view of the horizon line and tops of faraway trees. So fire spotters had to pick up a diffuse smoke higher in the sky.
This reporter couldn’t see it for a few minutes, then a light outline became visible. It was smoke from a state-run prescribed burn miles away.
“A camera is not as good at differentiating that,” said Wyckoff, explaining why cameras will never be as effective as a human being with a good 360-degree view from a fire tower.