PEMBERTON TOWNSHIP — The question of whether 16 acres of white pine trees may be cut down in a state forest to improve visibility at the Bass River fire tower is again pitting locals and forest lovers against the state Forest Fire Service and other property owners.
The commission narrowly voted against giving permission for the clear cutting in August, but commissioners said they needed more information from the applicant, the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Now, the DEP has again applied for approval to remove the trees planted in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. They have grown so tall they block the view from the 80-foot fire tower, forest fire officials have said.
“To me, this is a no-brainer. These guys have to be able to operate and see the whole forest,” said Howard Chew, of Washington Township, at Friday’s Pinelands Commission meeting.
Opponents said it made no sense to create a scar on the land in an area where tourists flock in summer, and said the state needs to modernize its approach to spotting fires.
“The white pines are majestic. We call it the enchanted forest,” said Kathy Gardner, a master naturalist who said her favorite hiking trail in Bass River State Forest is the orange trail, almost a mile of which would be cut. “Think of what people will see off Exit 52 of the Garden State Parkway. Their first impression as they pass will be a clear-cut area along a scenic byway.”
Friday was the last day for public comment on the reapplication. Commission staff, which recommended approving the tree cutting last time, will take the public’s comments and make a recommendation to the commission.
The commission could vote on it again as early as next month, officials said.
Chew said he is one of the owners of Mick’s Pine Barrens Canoe and Kayak Rentals in the hamlet of Jenkins in Washington Township near Chatsworth, Burlington County.
“My little town — population 36 — is right in the middle of Wharton, Penn and Bass River (state forests),” said Chew. “If a fire gets out of control, all I can do is pack the dogs, kids, wife and take off.”
He said he is being put at risk by not cutting the trees.
“That forest in July and August is packed with people,” said Chew, including hikers, campers, canoers and kayakers.
Riki Losiewicz, who has led a petition drive to stop the tree cutting, said the tower has passed its lifespan of 70 years, and a more modern approach needs to be taken to fire spotting with the use of cameras and other high-tech equipment.
If there is a major fire, said Losiewicz, “it will have nothing to do with 100-year-old white pines. ... It will be the applicant’s failure to update.”
Karl Swanseen, of Bass River Township, suggested moving the tower, or a section of it, to higher ground nearby. Such moves have been done elsewhere, he said.
Safety is paramount, and the forest is worth preservation, “because of the historic nature of it,” Swanseen said. “It’s an excellent opportunity to meet everyone’s goals.”
Cranberry farmer Steve Lee, a former Pinelands commissioner, said he manages his forest land with controlled burning and thinning, and is afraid of what a big fire could do in the Pinelands.
“They need this tower. They told you that,” said Lee. “I’m all for a perfect process, but you need time to work that out. We need a solution to fire season this year.”
Commission staff had recommended approval last year, saying the plan met the requirements of its Comprehensive Management Plan. It was believed to be the first time the commission voted against staff recommendations regarding a request by another state agency.
Then commissioners decided to extend the application period to take more testimony from the DEP, but would not allow any more testimony from the general public, sparking controversy over the commission’s handling of the matter.
The DEP withdrew the application, saying it would reapply after looking into alternatives such as cameras and other technology.
The new application makes it clear human fire spotters in towers are the best choice in the Pinelands, said Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin.
McLaughlin said Pennsylvania had gotten rid of many of its fire towers, thinking it could rely on 911 calls to handle forest fires. Now, the state is putting up new towers, he said.
The Bass River fire tower is just west of the parkway on East Greenbush Road in Bass River Township.
It 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 has gotten quotes of about $500,000, officials have said.
New Jersey Forest Service Chief Todd Wyckoff said the trees to be cut are in plantations that were intended to be harvested. They would be replaced with native species that would not grow as tall.
Wyckoff said the state would go out to bid for the cutting, and he hopes it would be done at no cost to taxpayers. But he could not guarantee that.
The area has seen some bad fires, including nine that have 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.
McLaughlin has said he expects the tower to continue being used for the next five to 10 years. But on Friday, he said the useful life of the tower is probably much longer. He said he has since talked to the manufacturer, the Air Motor Corp. of Texas, and it said none of the towers it constructed of that design has ever failed.