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(TRENTON) Legislation sponsored by Assembly members John F. McKeon, Paul Moriarty and Upendra J. Chivukula to establish a forest stewardship program to properly manage State-owned forests, recently received final legislative approval and now heads to the governor’s desk.

The measure (S-1085\ A-2837) would direct the State’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to develop a program to provide for the stewardship of forests on State-owned lands. The program would be in accordance with standards established by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an independent, not-for-profit entity.

The measure also stipulates public input and transparency in the development of a forest stewardship plan as a prerequiste for forest management certification from the FSC.

“Forests are a precious environmental resource that help clean and refresh the air, improve water quality and provide a sanctuary for nature lovers and natural habitats for wildlife. Forests are the single most important factor in fighting climate change, absorbing about one third of carbon emissions annually, and yet, they have been a stepchild of conservation,” McKeon (D-Essex\Morris) said.

“The forest stewardship measure we sponsored would establish a program to promote the long-term health and vigor of the State’s forest resources through sustanable practices and would help preserve the habitat for diverse native plants and animals as well as endangered species,” McKeon added.

“Forest lands are critical to the environmental welfare of the State and worthy of conservation and stewardship. Due to a lack of resources, forests are currently seldom managed effectively,” Moriarty (D-Camden/Gloucester) said.

“A forest stewardship program would ensure healthier forests by preventing the spread of disease and infestation, removing invasive species, clearing hazardous trees for public safety and reducing the risk of fires,” Moriarty added.

An estimated 1.8 million acres of New Jersey’s land mass is forested.

“New Jersey’s forests are the single largest land use, comprising 42 percent of the state’s 4.2 million acres. They help clean the air by filtering dust and other air pollutants, protect and clean the waters of the State, and promote the replenishment of aquifers and stabilize soils. Their beauty and biodiversity, including the fall foliage, contributes to our state’s tourism industry, which brought in an estimated $34.7 billion in 2012, that’s 7 percent of the state’s GDP,” Chivukula (D-Somerset\Middlesex) said.

“By establishing a program to invest in the upkeep and care of our forests including maintaining a balance between mature and young forest areas, would help ensure their long- term health and improved growth,” Chivukula added.

The measure, as amended, would prohibit forest harvesting activities on environmentally sensitive lands, with some environmentally beneficial exceptions, and would require that any staging area for equipment be located, as much as possible, in existing clearings, fields, or areas close to existing paved roads.

Under the measure, forest harvesting activities on State-owned lands in the Highlands Region would need to comply with the provisions of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act.

The legislation would also allow the DEP to select a project manager to supervise the program in accordance with the public bidding process.

Any funds generated from the sale of forest products from State-owned wildlife management areas, in excess of the cost of developing and implementing the forest stewardship plan, would be used for purposes deemed to be in the best interest of New Jersey’s wildlife resources.

Funds generated from the sale of forest products from all other State-owned lands would be used for restoration projects to increase biodiversity and enhance habitat for rare, threatened or endangered plant or animal species.