SPARTA, NJ – The “chop” continues on Sparta Mountain.  The brief reprieve announced by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection was lifted. In March the trucks rolled into the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area to cut down the trees under the guise of a forest stewardship plan.

Silvia Solaun and others from Friends of Sparta Mountain and NJ Forest Watch addressed the township council at their April 9 meeting, bringing newly found information, reviewing and clarifying facts behind the logging.

A group of people who have been rallying and lobbying to get the chop stopped have uncovered, through Freedom of Information Act or FOIA requests, that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has taken in $2.4 million from a USDA grant for the Forest Stewardship Plan for Sparta Mountain.

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“Where did that money go,” Solaun said.  The Sparta Mountain Reserve was purchased with 100% Green Acres funded  taxpayer dollars to preserve the forest.

“The Sparta Mountain Reserve is 100% green acres property,” Solaun said. None of the funding for its acquisition came from Fish and Wildlife or Waterfowl Stamp Program monies.

“The DEP is tasked with managing the land in part by partnering with public interest groups like New Jersey Audubon Society,”Solaun said.

The New Jersey Audubon Society has taken in over $200,000 of an anticipated $600,000 for their role in managing two tracks of forest in Sparta.  Solaun points out the New Jersey Audubon Society is not a chapter of the National Audubon Society.

On March 18 the chop began again, with heavy vehicles driving on soft ground, creating deep ruts and additional damage.  The plan calls for the vehicles to be in the woods in the winter when the ground was frozen mitigating damage and for the cutting to take place before the mating seasons of many of the birds and animals that call the forest home.

“On March 15 a pair of red shouldered hawks were seen at the logging entrance,” Sparta Mountain resident Solaun said.  After a question from Councilman Jerry Murphy, Solaun clarified the red shouldered hawk is different than the red tailed hawk.  The red shouldered hawk is on the state endangered species list.

According to Cornell Ornithology their habitat is mostly affected by logging activities. Biologist Blaine Rothauser confirmed the identity of the pair of red shouldered hawks when he hiked in to evaluate Stand 18. Rothauser specializes in Threatened and Endangered species analysis and environmental impact studies at GZA.

The Forest Stewardship Plan prohibits new roads from being cut into the forest, yet the ruts “two to three feet deep,” left in the mud reveal just that. It also points to the fact that the heavy equipment cannot maneuver in an area with steep slopes without creating severe soil disturbance according to Solaun.  

There are already several egregious violations by the New Jersey Audubon for logging in vernal pools according to Rain Forest Alliance Solaun said.  According to Friends of Sparta Mountain there are more than 30 vernal pools in the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area.

The Rain Forest Alliance served as the third party auditor for the Sparta Mountain Forest Stewardship Plan. Since that report, New Jersey Audubon Society has terminated their relationship with Rain Forest Alliance citing “complex reporting requirements” and claiming that it was “too complicated and too costly,” according to Soluan.

Solaun reminded the council members the Sparta Mountain Reserve was purchased to be protected in perpetuity with Green Acres funds.  The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protections, Division of Fish and Wildlife, however, retains the “stewardship and management of the forest.”  That is how this scheme came to be.

“A lot of people in Sparta do care [about this issue],” Erin Lambert said.  “We don’t own the land but the DEP doesn’t own it either. It was saved with Green Acres funds.  The DEP is using a loophole called stewardship.”

A member of the group attended a New Jersey Forestry Association’s annual meeting in 2018 at which she heard industry representatives say they “love northwest Jersey because we get the great hardwoods from that region.” She also learned “60% of New Jersey hardwoods, particularly from Morris and Sussex Counties, go to China and the UK.”

NJ Forest Watch/Friends of Sparta Mountain have submitted an Open Public Records Act or OPRA requests for the details of where the cut trees go when they leave the forest but this request has gone largely unanswered by the state. They are trying to find where the funding for logging comes from and where proceeds from the sale of the trees ends up.

The initial claim by the New Jersey Audubon Society that the cutting of the forest was necessary to preserve the habitat of the Golden Wing Warbler was quickly debunked.  They have since offered other rationale including that the cut was necessary to make the forest healthy.

“How do you build resilience in the forest you are cutting down,” Solaunuan said.

According to Solaun, several forest ecologists confirmed the stumps as well as felled trees left by the loggers in the latest cut in Stand 18,  show that every tree cut down was healthy.  Further the trees were growing the best in the past 25 to 30 years, proving the claim of a sick forest to be incorrect.  The trees cut down are red, white and black oaks 150 to 180 years old, as well as birch, chestnuts, hickory and maple, disproving the argument that the trees are all middle aged and “not diverse enough” as stated in the forestry plan.

The forest, deemed a High Conservation Value Forest in the 1990s, is also home to more than 120 species designated Rare, Threatened/Endangered and Special Concern species according to Solaun.

Edison Bog, the area around Morris Lake and other parts of the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area are also Natural Heritage Priority  Areas.

Solaun told a cautionary tale that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection plans to look at every open space in New Jersey to implement a similar logging plan.  She said they already have a plan for Stokes State Forest called “Oak Regeneration Program, not even bothering to hide their intentions.”

Solaun asked the council members if they had been in contact with Catherine McCabe, Acting Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.  

Mayor Molly Whilesmith said they would reach out to McCabe again, especially about the late start to the cutting activities this year.

“It’s not Sparta, even though it’s Sparta Mountain,” Deputy Mayor Christine Quinn said.  “We have tried to broker a partnership bringing up concerns of the residents, trying to get more flies with honey, because we are powerless to get them to stop.”

“You are not powerless, especially if we work as a group,” Erin Lambert said.  “I don’t agree.  We can overtake the state… If using honey isn’t working, it’s time to change tactics.”

 “We also tried honey.  But now we have hired an environmental lawyer. We are fighters not giveupers,” Solaun said.  “I implore you to get out of the honey and into the mud.”

“The honey comment was not that it was a weak effort,” Quinn said. The speakers agreed but said a change of tactics seemed necessary.

In addition to the impact of the enjoyment of the forest for residents and disruption in the neighborhoods, Solaun said it is important to remember 70% of New Jersey drinking water, for 6.2 million New Jersey residents comes from the Highlands’  Forest. 

The speakers invited the council members to take a hike, touring the most recent logging site, Stand 18 as identified in the plan.  They also extended an invitation to a program scheduled for May 9 at the Sparta United Methodist Church, “Preservation vs Management.” The free program begins at 6:15 p.m. with featured speaker Dr. Joan Maloof, Director of the Old Growth Forest Network.

The organization has a Change.org petition calling for support to stop the logging in Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area.  

“Not only are we passionate but we are not going away,” Solaun said.  “We hope you have our backs because we are Spartans.”