SPARTA, NJ – Nearly 50 people packed the council chambers on Tuesday night for the Sparta Township Council meeting, many of them  to discuss an item not even on the agenda. Most were there to discuss the proposed Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area Forestry Stewardship Plan. 

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Fish and Wildlife, “in conjunction with the New Jersey Audubon Society," developed the 10-year plan that calls for removing trees in the contiguous forest of more than 3,400 acres. The forest crosses boundaries into Sparta Township, Ogdensburg Township, Hardyston Township and Jefferson Township. Sparta has the most acreage with 1,842 and Hardyston a close second with 1,543.

Prior to opening the meeting to the public, Township Manager Bill Close explained that the comments spoken at the meeting also needed to be conveyed to the DEP, NJ Fish and Wildlife to get on the record. The council would hear the statements and take them into consideration but “the township, like you, is a stakeholder and will be submitting comments to the DEP.”

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He also stated the town council has asked the DEP for a public hearing.  Close said, “They are planning to have it.  It is being considered for March.”

Mayor Christine Quinn explained they would not limit anyone’s comments

Many differing points of view were offered by experts, members of organization and communities within and outside of Sparta as well as individual residents.

The stated goals of the plan is to provide a variation in the age of the trees, in turn providing for a wider variety of species, improving the health of the forest and the water systems. 

Skeptics are critical of the plan to disrupt existing wildlife and the impact of the clearing on the waterways and residents.  Some also point to the impression that the plan intends to raise money from the sale of harvested timber.

Susan Williams went first presenting comments as “Chair of the Skylands Group of the NJ Sierra Club” in the Northwest geographical group in NJ. “I also live near the WMA.”  Presenting “in a layperson’s perspective” she said the Sparta Mountain is a high conservation value forest.  It is “greenway corridor and home to a variety of flora and fauna.” She defined greenway corridor as a contiguous forest that “can hold rainwater, prevent flooding and runoff and keep nutrients in the soil” emphasizing the interrelationship between the greenway corridor and the quality of water. 

She went on to express concern about the methods described in the plan including the “heavy equipment, road construction compaction, forest segmentation and herbicide application.”

In discussing the goal of the project “as necessary to save the Golden Wing Warbler,” she said it was a “Trojan horse to let commercial loggers in.”  She was the first of many to be skeptical of the project because of the language in the plan that discusses the value of the lumber to be harvested.  “It’s anything but stewardship, it’s really a logging plan.” 

Another concern is that the plan states it is the first 10 years of a 60 year plan and that this is being presented “one phase at a time so as not to alarm the public.”

The project is exempt from adhering to Highland Act, specifically as it relates to buffer zones prohibiting disturbing land contiguous to bodies of water.  “We’re a watershed area providing water to millions of people,” and “residents have wells and depend on clean aquifers from which we draw our water,” said Williams.

Williams added that for her a red flag that added to the skepticism of the report is that the plan states the “public and a large list of stakeholders must be involved from the beginning” but the plan was released during the holidays when people “were distracted” and was not sent to any of the local residents, organizations or lake communities.  “The fact that some of the information in the 87 page document is misleading calls into question the veracity of the whole plan.”

The report and DEP website show only a response from the “Ruffed Grouse Society of Pennsylvania.”

Williams said, “We won’t accept this as a done deal.”

Councilwoman Molly Whilesmith said, “We have a lot of questions for the DEP.”

Sparta Lake resident described all of the wildlife he sees in his yard, “turkeys, deer and bear” to name a few.  “The DEP is concentrating on the wrong end.  They should look at people with old septics and phosphorous fertilizers running off into streams and lakes.”

Bill Monter served on Sparta’s Environmental Commissions for three years.  “It shouldn’t be for the benefit of one or two species.  We don’t need more roads.”

Sue Dorward of the Beaver Lake community commended the council for hearing what everyone had to say.  She shared the concerns of the small lake community that has dealt with this type timber cut in the past.

John Cecil of the NJ Audubon Society explained that they own 300 acres on which this plan has been in effect for several years.  He emphasized that the plan is “implementing an existing forestry stewardship program,” that is in compliance with forest stewardship standards. 

The trees in the forest are essentially all the same age.  There is a “lack of new forest habitat.” The plan seeks to “Improve the health and structure of the forest.  We really have an opportunity to create future forest," said Cecil.

He went on to say they “have been doing it for 10 years and have only been able to do 10 to 20 acres per year.” The plan will be subject to “annual audits and oversight of the DEP.”

The DEP restricts the timeframe in which trees can be cut down, bringing disturbance of the forest to a halt in the spring for nesting and mating periods. 

Cecil acknowledged the “timing of the release was unfortunate” and further the Audubon Society “asked [the DEP] to have the time for public comment be extended.”  He explained, “I hope we can find a place where government and community can support the plan…We want to be good neighbors and transparent in our plan.”

He explained the DEP will identify which patches of habitat will be worked on by “how easy it is to access, how steep the slopes are, waterways, will wildlife be supported by the cut, how close adjacent homes are.”

To the accusation that the plan is a moneymaking scheme, Cecil said they are “not focused on profitability of the project but the support of wildlife.  Of course it must be financially feasible.”  He did confirm “the trees are sold the money goes to the state.”

Councilman Jerry Murphy asked who controlled the bidding process.  It was confirmed to be the state.

Fred Turner of Sparta Lake reminded the council that the adjacent Newark Watershed “sustained tremendous tree damage from the recent hurricanes so there are gaps” that are like those proposed in the plan.

Representative from Trout Unlimited explained that he has done this sort of cut on his property three time at the headwater to Sparta Glen and it “won State Forestry Stewardship Project of 2012.”  He said, “It is not a money grab.  It creates more diversity in the forest which leads to better water quality.”  

He explained “deer browse pressure is not what we thought it was” and there is concern for the health of the forest because there is “no diversity of trees and native schrubs.”

Cecil added that 150 years ago the American chestnut dominated the area and a blight wiped them out.  “A chain saw is seen as an evil machine.  It’s not, in the right hands.”

Silvia Opresnick, a resident of Glen View Forest a neighborhood adjacent to the WMA forest said, “I’m a proponent of [forest] diversity but the benefits do not outweigh the risks.”  She was concerned about the plan’s “prescription” of using “fire to kill young trees” near so many homes.  “It seems there may be hidden agendas” questioning the money, water conservation issues and use of herbicide.  She asked where else this type of plan was being implemented.

Mayor Quinn answered it was being done “in the Pine Barrens right now.”

Opresnick implored the council follow up on getting a meeting with the DEP and reminded them to “please make sure the meeting is not during spring break” at the end of March.

Manager Close said, “We suggested they need to be more proactive with the tools they use to share information.”

Glen Road resident Conrad Frank pointed to the Sparta Glen “It doesn’t resemble the forest it used to, even with all of the efforts of private citizens and Trout Unlimited.  The damage is insurmountable.”  He went on to discuss the impact of clear cutting the trees, “One of the main foods the deer rely on is the Princess Pine which needs shade,” suggesting that with those trees eliminated the deer are pushed in to residential neighborhoods. 

Ecologist Blain Rothouser came from Florham Park to speak on the issue.  He too congratulated the council “for allowing the community to have their say.”  His area of expertise is to “work on conservation management plans." 

“I’m frazzled by the amount of information you have to deal with.”  He referred to the Audubon Society as a “consulting group.”  “I would love to have the lucrative contract [they have].  I would ask you to investigate – not saying its ill intended.”  He went on to talk about the impact to the water systems.

“It may be well intended but I totally disagree that the net benefit will be an uptick in diversity when there is a guide suite of species that will be affected.”  Rothouser said there have been “many threatened and endangered birds have been heard calling.  They are weighing heavily to the interior of the forest.  They are going to lose.”  Adding “Nobody is out there surveying the turtles.”

Author of the plan Audubon Society’s John Donnelly said this plan is in part to “address issues that led to the tragedy of the [Sparta] Glen.”  He said many of the questions and concerns raised have been looked at but were not part of the 87 page plan “because it was would be too long.” 

Donnelly said the “seemingly unanswered” issues and “many of the other wildlife have been studied within the DEP. They are responsible for these other wildlife and they have signed on to this plan.”  They are “just not included in this plan.”

He discussed the questions about Highlands exemptions regarding erosion plans and buffer zones.  “The Highlands and DEP Storm Water Plan developers recognize forestry is not the same as development. Not the same as building houses or a Walmart. They have rules of compliance that are different for forest stewardship.” 

Donnelly went on to say forestry stewardship is “encouraged under the Highlands Master Plan” and that trees will be left if they are beneficial to the wildlife.  “It is easy to cite studies but they are not all comparable.”

Dudley Anderson came next to the microphone.  The Beaver Lake resident asked rhetorically, “What about the value of our property?”  He said the plan calls for access roads to the stands 28 through 31 that are nearest to his home that “will be visible in my front yard, my back yard and my side yard.”  He added, “There will be trucks, dirt, debris and dust.” He recounted having had the ridge above his property cut in the way prescribed in the plan. 

A resident near Hawthorne Lake said they too have had a cut near their home “but I though it was the end not the beginning,” so she did not complain.  She was concerned about the rare plants, “The budget did not allow for a survey of rare plants,” indicating there were “70-80 rare species with 41 that are endangered or threatened” that the thinning and burning will disrupt.

She said the clear cutting methods would allow for invasive species to take hold and the answer provided by the plan to use herbicides is “contrary for connectivity for species.” She thought the land and forest would be part of a green belt and said, “Ravaging Sparta Mountain in the name of the Golden Wing Warbler is a hoax on the township.”

Steven Opresnick volunteer Wildlife Search and Rescuer and resident question the plans explanation of the survey done of rare plants from “October 2013 and May and June of 2014 in the middle of the winter.  Why would you look for plants in the middle of the winter?”

Robert Demuth Jr,’s property abuts the WMA “that’s why I moved here.”  His home is near to stand 9 by the Edison monument and mines.  He is concerned and questions the prescription for that area to be culled by fire.  “Fire, why fire?  It is the second most frequented recreational area. And there is no knowledge that it will work. ‘It will afford the opportunity to determine if it is an effective way to deal with the red oak.’”  The prescription calls for it to be cut then burned every two years for the next six years.  He questioned this method “when there are other tools at their disposal.” 

In conclusion he said, “It seems extreme and biased.  Please consider a less extreme method and please do not use fire,” so close to the homes.

Sparta Lake resident Adrian Meerman said, “The concern is not necessarily which science is the best science or which cut is the best cut.  It is the emotional impact of seeing logging trucks in a 60 year plan- for as long as we live.  Twenty acres a year sounds like an innocent number in 3000. Twenty acres a year, 20 acres here, 20 acres there; that’s a lot of roads.” 

He spoke of the well water on which he and his neighbors rely, “eventually it will be effected and we will have to pay the price.”

Meerman said, “They are not concerned with the methods.  We are concerned with the methods.  It seems an appropriate matter.  It’s not just the forest it is our outdoor living room.”  He share that some national forests do not allow any power tools to be used in their forest management projects.

Rob Gormley lives on Sparta Mountain.  He said, “The incremental potential benefit” is not enough to support this project.  “It seems like they think they know better than nature,” Gormley said.

New Upper Lake resident Richard Walker said, “I am 0 for three summers for getting into the lake due to the sediment” from the dam project.  The former Beaver Lake resident said, “Audubon should kill their 300 acres and leave us alone.”

The plan divides the acreage into 32 segments or “stands” and prescribes several different methods for clearing trees from each stand.  They propose to use

  • Seed Tree with Reserves where “almost all trees regardless of size are harvested”
  • Shelterwood where “existing trees are harvested in a series of two or three cuts”
  • Single Tree Selection where “trees are removed from all size classes”
  • Group Selection with Reserves that “creates small openings that can mimic natural gap disturbances caused by events like windthrow and snow storms”

They also plan to use “appropriate herbicides” and “prescribed fire.”

Individuals and organizations can submit comments to the DEP on the 87 page plan.  The township has asked for a public hearing with the DEP.  No date has been confirmed.