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Agriculture Committee Advances Bill Package Addressing Forest Stewardship Plans to Protect NJ Forestland

(TRENTON) – Taking action to promote responsible stewardship of forest lands to reduce the risk of uncontrolled fire and preserve environmental habitats, the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Monday advanced a package of four bills to address management of New Jersey’s forests.

“Our forests are an invaluable resource and refuge. They offer botanical heritage, watershed protection, natural resources and indescribable scenery across hundreds of thousands of acres in the Garden State,” said Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling (D-Monmouth), chair of the Agriculture Committee and prime sponsor of all four bills. “Without proper maintenance and nurture, we could potentially lose our forests to wildfires and other effects of climate change. Promoting responsible stewardship of our forests will help protect and preserve this vital natural resource for generations to come.”

The first bill in the package (A-4843), sponsored by Assemblywoman Carol Murphy and Assemblyman Houghtaling, requires the development of forest stewardship plans for certain lands acquired for recreation and conservation purposes by the State, local government units, or qualifying tax-exempt nonprofit organizations with funding provided through New Jersey’s “Green Acres Program.” The goal of this legislation is to ensure that these entities have plans in place to manage the property and promote the long-term health and vigor of the forests.

“Our forests are home to native plants, threatened and endangered species and a vast array of wildlife,” said Murphy (D-Burlington). “By requiring organizations to have forest stewardship plans, we will ensure these environments are well-managed and protected from harm.”

About 42 percent of New Jersey’s land is forested, with two thirds privately owned. Forest stewardship plans developed by landowners must undergo a multi-tiered review process, often resulting in added costs or time delays to projects without any clear environmental benefits.

The second bill (A-4844) would streamline the review process by providing that forest stewardship plans do not need approval from municipal governments. Plans would still need approval from the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection (DEP) and, if applicable, the Pinelands Commission.

“Most municipal governments do not have the time, resources or expertise to review and approve forest stewardship plans. If a plan has already been approved by the DEP, we can trust that it is in full compliance with appropriate forestry standards,” said Assemblyman John Armato (D-Atlantic), co-prime sponsor of the legislation. “Streamlining the review process will relieve some of the burden on landowners so that they may implement management plans in a timely manner.”

One of the most effective ways to prevent a destructive forest fire is to purposely start a controlled blaze. Known as prescribed burns, fires prepared in advance – with expectations set for the size, environmental conditions and suppression of the burn – may be designed to create a mosaic of diverse habitats for plants and animals, help endangered species or reduce fuels to prevent a destructive fire.

Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo, Armato and Houghtaling sponsor the third bill (A-4845) to set a statewide goal of conducting prescribed burns on a minimum of 50,000 acres in the Pinelands and an additional 10,000 acres elsewhere in New Jersey every year between November and March.

The Pinelands is the biggest surviving forest on the eastern seaboard south of Maine’s North Woods. The Pinelands has over 800,000 acres of forest, of which only about half is permanently preserved. The final bill in package (A-4846) establishes a working group to evaluate coordination and cooperation between various government entities and private landowners regarding forest stewardship in the Pinelands.

“The Pinelands provide water for millions of people, boast thousands of acres of farmland and serve as a habitat for diverse wildlife and plants,” said Mazzeo (D-Atlantic). “Preserving our forests – particularly the vast Pinelands – and protecting them from unplanned, devastating fires is essential to safeguarding these environments and the ecological benefits every New Jerseyan gains from them.”

The bill package now goes to the Assembly Speaker for further review.