What’s valuable about New Jersey’s forests?

The State We’re In by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

In the not-so-distant past, the value of forests was based on the timber generated from logging. Forests without commercial timber potential were thought to be nearly worthless.

Today much more is known about forest values. Forests are considered priceless for providing wildlife habitat and many “ecosystem services,” including filtering impurities from the air and water, absorbing and storing carbon from the atmosphere, and soaking up floodwaters. Forests are also valuable for recreation and their cooling effect in summer.

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A new “State Forest Action Plan” by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection examines the value of the Garden State’s forests and the many threats they face – most prominently the impacts of a warming climate. The plan proposes a number of actions to protect New Jersey’s forests, which collectively cover about 2 million acres of this state we’re in.

The department is accepting public comments on the draft plan through Wednesday, Dec. 2.

“In the past, forest managers looked at forests through a narrow lens…Timber value is no longer an important forest attribute for many New Jersey residents,” explains State Forester John Sacco in the plan’s introduction.

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“This land works hard for our 9 million residents, providing clean water, much-needed recreation, wildlife and rare plant habitat and jobs,” Sacco added. “Our urban forests keep cities cooler in summer, filter air and water pollution and make our neighborhoods attractive places to live. Our forests fix enough atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) each year to offset the annual CO2 emissions of Newark, our largest city. They are the front line in our fight against climate change.”

The State Forest Action Plan is a 10-year strategic plan required under the federal Farm Bill for New Jersey to be eligible for federal forest stewardship funding. Much hard work has gone into the action plan, which contains substantial information not found in previous plans.

The federal forestry program has three priorities: Protecting forests from threats, enhancing public benefits from trees and forests, and conserving and managing working forest landscapes for multiple values and uses. The first two are the most relevant to small and densely-populated New Jersey.

As Sacco notes, New Jersey’s forests are at risk from climate change, invasive species, diseases, insect outbreaks and wildfires.

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“Increased global trade is accelerating the homogenization of Earth’s ecosystems,” he said. “New organisms are continually introduced into places where they did not evolve. Due to introduced diseases and insects, we have lost or are losing many important native tree, shrub and herbaceous plant species. In many areas, our Great Eastern Deciduous Forest now has a Eurasian understory.”

Wildfires are also a threat, as a massive fire or series of fires could cause “a catastrophic release of CO2 to the atmosphere, a phenomenon we’ve seen out west, where forest lands were once carbon sinks, but now atmospheric carbon sources.”

The forest plan suggests several actions, including:

  • Conserving our forest’s biological diversity;
  • Maintaining the health and vitality of forest ecosystems;
  • Conserving and maintaining soil and water resources of our forests;
  • Maintaining forest contributions to global carbon cycles;

 

The forest plan notes that the Earth’s warming climate is changing New Jersey’s forests. Trees are flowering earlier, and sea level rise threatens many species, including Atlantic white cedar, that can’t survive saltwater intrusion. Tree species historically found in the southern part of the state will eventually become more abundant in the north, and some trees now found in northern New Jersey may disappear from the state.

The forest plan discusses diseases and pests in great detail and, for the first time, points out the severe damage caused by our over-abundant deer population.

The forest plan recommends planting trees in areas previously not forested, restoring damaged forests, restoring the declining Atlantic White Cedar ecosystems, and protecting rare plants.

The plan introduces a new concept of “proforestation,” the practice of leaving forests undisturbed as they march toward old age, to maximize their ecological potential and carbon sequestration. New science is helping us understand how carbon is captured and stored over time throughout the forest above or below ground, in wood and roots, and in soil and leaves.

Many new studies, synthesized in the publication Wild Carbon, point to conserving undisturbed forests as the best strategy for sequestering carbon as part of the battle to slow climate change. The draft State Forest Action Plan mentions the Sourlands region of central New Jersey as one place where proforestation should be considered, but emerging science suggests that this strategy should play a much larger role in many of New Jersey’s older, maturing forests.

Protecting sequestered carbon by fostering the eventual re-establishment of old growth forest areas on our public lands can even create a New Jersey “carbon market.” As part of our response to global warming, forest trees may be far more valuable being left to grow old than anyone ever dreamed!

For all those who love New Jersey’s forests and want to learn of their current status and what the future might hold, be sure to check out the State Forest Action Plan at  https://njparksandforests.org/forest/njsfap/docs/njsfap20201015.pdf

To provide your observations to the State Forester on the plan before the state’s Dec. 2 deadline, go to https://njparksandforests.org/forest/njsfap/comment.html.

To find out more about the benefits of proforestation and go to the Wild Carbon website at https://www.sweetwatertrust.org/images/WildWorks_V1_WildCarbon.pdf.

To learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.