The State We're In

Reforms needed to protect our public lands!

May 11, 2023

By Tom Gilbert, Co-Executive Director

The chunky woodland sandpiper called the American woodcock is a favorite of spring birdwatchers due to the male’s acrobatic courtship display flights. Making a distinctive buzz call and melodious twittering song, males rise hundreds of feet in the air before making plunging dives earthward.

Though woodcocks are part of the sandpiper family, they mostly live inland and feed on soil earthworms and arthropods using their long, sensitive-tipped beaks. They’re considered a species of “least concern,” meaning they’re in little peril of extinction.

So it’s astounding that an agency within the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) – whose mission includes protecting threatened and endangered species – would cook up a project to create new habitat for these game birds by destroying nesting and foraging habitat for two rare bird species.

That’s exactly what happened in February and March, when the Division of Fish and Wildlife razed 19 acres of exceptional resource value wetlands and adjacent upland forests in the Glassboro Wildlife Management Area in Clayton Borough, Gloucester County.

Before being logged and bulldozed, the land provided habitat for barred owls, a threatened species in New Jersey, and red-shouldered hawks, an endangered species. It also contained mature forests and two rare plants, including a wildflower known as showy meadow-beauty; and vernal pools known to support native woodland frog populations. Also destroyed were archaeological sites where the earliest of New Jersey indigenous cultures were being researched.

Now the land is a barren wasteland, flattened and with no vegetation remaining. All natural resources – plants, animals, soils and surface geology – were altered, removed or exterminated.

On April 6 the DEP’s Bureau of Coastal and Land Use Compliance and Enforcement (CLUE) issued a Notice of Violation to the DEP Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Bureau of Land Management for the destruction of protected wetlands. It’s the same notice that would be given to a private developer who illegally destroyed wetlands or habitat for protected species.

This week, CLUE set a timeline for Fish & Wildlife to submit a restoration proposal for 2.79 acres of freshwater wetlands and 11.95 acres of freshwater wetland transition area that were destroyed. The restoration proposal must be developed by July 15 and will be subject to a public comment period.

CLUE also assessed $266,000 in administrative penalties against Fish and Wildlife, treating itself the same way that any outside party would be treated.

What’s not in CLUE’s administrative order – but critically important – is making sure that a violation like this will never happen again. A much more stringent process needs to be put in place to review all forest and wildlife management plans on public lands, with strong public notice and input requirements.

To his credit, DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette took responsibility for this egregious action. At a State Assembly budget hearing in April, legislators grilled LaTourette about the Glassboro WMA clear-cutting and bulldozing. “What are you going to do to prevent it from happening in the future?’’ asked Assemblyman John McKeon, pointing out that a developer could face jail time if convicted of the same violation.

Assemblyman Gerry Scharfenberger pointed out that the loss of forest harms the state’s efforts to mitigate climate change by using forests to sequester carbon. “We’re looking for carbon-capture systems, and we lose a 21-acre wooded area,’’ he said.

The commissioner blamed it on “a breakdown” in both personnel and process. “We will put in better guardrails to make sure it does not happen again,’’ he promised.

Now DEP needs to follow through on that pledge by telling the public what improved protocols will be put in place, and taking public comments on whatever changes they propose. No significant management projects should move forward until the necessary safeguards are in place.

The destruction at Glassboro WMA was more than a simple breakdown in communications; it’s evidence of systemic dysfunction. How is it possible for one division within the DEP to not know about the presence of wetlands and rare species habitat at a site it wanted to drastically alter?

Had the public been notified in advance of the plans for creating woodcock habitat and given a chance to comment, the whole Glassboro debacle could likely have been prevented.

The violation also highlights the need for the state to move forward on implementing the recommendations of the Forest Stewardship Task Force, a group appointed by State Senator Bob Smith, chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

One key recommendation is to direct the DEP to conduct a statewide planning and mapping process for public forestland, including better protection of resources historically and culturally significant to indigenous people.  A planning process such as this could identify appropriate places to create habitat for species that require open fields without clearing mature forests or protected wetlands, while also identifying areas of mature forests that should be protected as carbon reserves.

Other recommendations include directing the DEP to develop formal rules governing approval of management plans on public lands, with public input; and prohibiting the DEP from including commercial profit from timber operations as a goal in any forest management plan for public land.

Speak out for New Jersey’s wetlands and forests! Send a message to DEP Commissioner LaTourette by going to https://njconservation.salsalabs.org/policy-2023-glassborowmaletter/index.html?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=fed8c15c-2466-4fb4-8524-83b212585bd0. And urge your state legislators to waste no time in adopting the Forest Stewardship Task Force Recommendations.

And for more information about protecting the state’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

About the Authors

Tom Gilbert

Co-Executive Director

Alison Mitchell

Co-Executive Director

John S. Watson, Jr.

Co-Executive Director

Michele S. Byers

Executive Director, 1999-2021

View their full bios here.

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