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Forest Stewardship Assessment

What better way to address some of the philosophical and practical issues facing land managers in New Jersey than collaboratively developing a land management plan for a spectacular property? The next Stewardship Roundtable meeting will be held on April 18, 2012 at Ridge and Valley Conservancy’s Gnome Hollow Preserve.  This will be a “working” meeting where we will help Ridge and Valley Conservancy develop a Forest Stewardship Plan for this gorgeous preserve.   If you haven’t been in the woods in this part of New Jersey, you are in for a treat.  

The meeting will start at 10:30 10:00 and go until 1:30 PM.  We will meet at  Johnsonburg Town Hall (Frelinghuysen Township), Route 661 (Main Street), just west of the intersection with Route 519.  Ridge and Valley will be providing lunch, but you are also welcome to bring your own.

Click here for a link to a Google Map to get directions.  Note that this map also shows the property shapefile, so if you end up late you can meet us there instead.  

Please RSVP to me directly at jon@wagar.me so we know how many people are attending.

This is how Ridge and Valley describes Gnome Hollow  on their website:

…[it] is primarily deciduous hardwood forest, but it contains a small former Christmas tree farm.  Ms. Johansen sold trees and gave the proceeds to charity.  The property has a mix of native hardwoods, including mature oak and black birch, hickory, and emerging sugar maple.  Several vernal pools, which flood in spring then drain in summer, are found throughout the forest. These pools are important habitat for reptiles and amphibians, which can breed in them without having fish, eat their egg. The vernal pools are also important recharge areas for the aquifers.

RVC is in the process of developing a forest stewardship plan for the property to help demonstrate how landowners can manage local woodlands for maximum conservation value and forest health.  Plans call for thinning of the Christmas trees to allow development of individual trees, encouragement of sugar maples on south-facing slopes to develop a “sugar bush,” such as those used in sugar mapling, controlled burns, and reintroduction of native trees, especially near vernal pools.  There is a trailhead on the property at Stillwater Road. The preserve is open from dawn to dusk, but nighttime use is permissible if one notifies RVC.

Here are a set of planning maps that I put together.  Click on the link here or the image below to download them.

Gnome Hollow Map Set 1

Here is the Google map:

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Tree in winter, Schiff Nature Preserve

As land stewards, we have recognized for years the severe ecological threats to New Jersey’s forests.  These include overabundant white-tailed deer, non-native invasive plants, new and novel forest pests, severe forest fragmentation due to development, and global warming.  It is widely acknowledged that these ecological threats have made sustainable, commodity-based forest management more and more difficult.  There were many factors conspiring to exacerbate these threats to our forest, including New Jersey’s version of the agricultural and forestry use assessment, what is commonly referred to as Farmland or Woodland Assessment.  Woodland Assessment required landowners to show an economic return through harvest and sale of forest products.  In many cases, this meant harvesting trees in an unsustainable manner, which led to forest degradation.

The newly-enacted Forest Stewardship Law addresses these problems head-on by incentivizing a broad, sustainable approach to forest management.  It eliminates the requirement of landowners to derive an income from sale of forest products to qualify for the differential assessment, provided they follow an approved Forest Stewardship Plan.  The new law directs the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to create a new forest stewardship program, authorizes funding to create forest stewardship plans, as well as funding to implement the practices outlined in the program, and prohibits local governments from enacting laws that would interfere with implementing a Forest Stewardship Plan.   It also directs the State, to the extent possible, to purchase wood products derived from lands that have a Forest Stewardship Plan.  I have tried to summarize many of the important aspects of this the Forest Stewardship Law as well as provide a few suggestions how land stewards can become involved in its implementation.

Official Recognition of Broad Suite of Forest Values

The findings and declarations of the Legislature  in this new law recognize that the value of forests to the State goes beyond traditional commodities such as firewood and lumber.  The Forest Stewardship Law says:

a. The Legislature finds and declares that forest lands are critical to the environmental welfare of the State; that forest lands help clean and refresh the air by filtering dust and particulates; that forest lands absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, helping to reduce global warming; that forest lands help clean and protect the waters of the State, promote replenishment of aquifers, stabilize soils, provide shade, and provide habitat essential to sustaining New Jersey’s native biodiversity, including habitat critical for endangered and threatened species and species of special concern; and that it is proper to consider the management of forests  in a sustainable manner as an agricultural or horticultural use which yields public benefits.

b. The Legislature further finds and declares that forest lands are critical to the social welfare of the State; that forest lands are a necessary and important part of community and urban environments, and are essential to the maintenance of quality of life in the State; that forest lands afford outdoor recreational opportunities and irreplaceable aesthetic benefits; and that forest lands promote the health of the citizenry by contributing to the availability of clean air and water.

Forest Stewardship Program

The law directs the Department of Environmental Protection to establish a new Forest Stewardship Program.   As many of you are probably aware, there is an existing Forest Stewardship Program that was established by the USDA Forest Service in 1991 and is administered by the NJDEP Forest Service.  The new Forest Stewardship law directs DEP to establish a Forest Stewardship advisory committee that is consistent with the federal requirements, which I take to mean that the existing Forest Stewardship Committee will be subsumed by this new Forest Stewardship advisory committee.  Although former versions of the bill outlined the make-up of this committee, the version that passed is silent on what organizations, types of professionals, or interested citizens will be on the committee.  Here is the language from the law:

….establishing a forest stewardship advisory committee, consistent with the federal requirements for the establishment of a State Forest Stewardship Coordinating Committee pursuant to 16 U.S.C. s.2113, to advise the department (1) on issues related to forest stewardship and recommend programs, actions and standards, including rules and regulations, policies, guidelines and best management practices, for the conservation and stewardship of forest lands…

The law does not change the minimum acreage of land that can qualify for the program – 5 acres or greater, but it does briefly address what information should be contained in a Forest Stewardship Plan .  Development of the Forest Stewardship Plan is essential in that an approved Forest Stewardship Plan allows a landowner to apply for Forest Stewardship Assessment (see below).  The law states that a Forest Stewardship Plan should conform to rules that will be developed by DEP that will set forth:

policies, guidelines and best management practices that establish standards designed to ensure the sustainability of forest lands, which may be applicable to any  publicly and privately owned forest land;

The law also outlines what qualifications are needed to write a forest stewardship plan.  Most significantly, it broadens the professional qualifications necessary to be permitted to write forest stewardship plans.  It allows plans to be written by:

a forester or other professional selected by the owner from a list of foresters approved by the department, or from a list of other professionals authorized by the department in consultation with the forest stewardship advisory committee

Forest Stewardship Incentive Fund

The law establishes a Forest Stewardship Incentive fund that will provide grants to develop and implement Forest Stewardship Plans.  The law authorizes individual grants up to $2,500 to fund development of Forest Stewardship Plans by nonprofit organizations, local governments and private landowners.

Cost share funding for forest stewardship practices identified in a Forest Stewardship Plan will also be eligible for funding.  The cost-share portion of this program is meant to be modeled upon the forest land enhancement program (FLEP).  This is good news because as of the end of 2009, FLEP is out of funding.  The money for the Forest Stewardship Incentive fund will come from the Global Warming Solutions Fund.

Right to Forest Stewardship

The law has language similar to the intent of right-to-farm.  Specifically it prohibits local governments from:

enact[ing],…. any ordinance, rule, or resolution, as appropriate, that conflicts with, prevents or impedes the  implementation of a forest stewardship plan approved pursuant to [The Forest Stewardship Law] or impose a fee in excess of $100 in any calendar year for the cutting of trees on any land that is the subject of an approved forest stewardship plan.

Development of Forest Sustainability Criteria

The law directs the DEP, in consultation with the Forest Stewardship Advisory Committee, the USDA Forest Service, the Forest Stewardship advisory committee, and the public, to develop forest sustainability criteria.  These criteria and indicators could be incredibly important in developing Forest Stewardship Plan guidelines and measuring and informing the legislature and the public about the conservation threats to our forest over time.  More specifically, DEP must:

develop and establish forest sustainability criteria and indicators appropriate to the circumstances encountered in New Jersey, as a basis for monitoring,  recording, and assessing the  extent, condition, and sustainability of all New Jersey forests, whether publicly or privately owned. The department shall prepare a report setting forth the findings and assessments based on these forest sustainability criteria and indicators by February 1 of the third year after the date of enactment of …… and every seven years thereafter, which report shall include any recommendations for legislative or administrative action.

The department shall consider the findings and assessments set forth in the forest sustainability criteria and indicators report prepared pursuant to ….. this section to determine how to adapt the rules and regulations adopted pursuant to section …..to ensure the sustainability of forest lands, to set priorities for the management of State-owned forest lands, and to assist in establishing priorities for the use of State funds for the acquisition of forest lands.

From Farmland Assessment to Forest Stewardship Assessment

The change in the Farmland Assessment law to include Forest Stewardship Assessment is by far the most important part of the law.  If a landowner is implementing a Forest Stewardship Plan, they will be able to qualify for the differential tax assessment without having to harvest trees in order to derive income.  Here is the magic language that amended the existing Farmland Assessment Act:

b. The gross sales, payments, imputed income, and fees received requirements of this section shall not apply to land that (1) is the subject of a forest stewardship plan approved by the Department of Environmental Protection pursuant to [The Forest Stewardship Law] which is fully implemented, and (2) otherwise qualifies under the “Farmland Assessment Act of 1964,” P.L.1964, c.48 (C.54:4-23.1 et seq.), for valuation, assessment and taxation as land in agricultural or horticultural use pursuant to section 3 of P.L.1964, c.48 (C.54:4-38 23.3).

How land stewards can help shape the Forest Stewardship Law

The New Jersey Forest Stewardship Law will take effect one year from the date it was enacted.  This means that the DEP will be writing the regulations for this law in 2010.  It is important that land stewards are at the table commenting on development of these new rules.  Specifically, we should advocate for:

  • A strong representation of land stewards on the Forest Stewardship Advisory Committee, whose success will be important for the program to work effectively.  This will ensure that we help guide the forest sustainability criteria over time, help shape the Forest Stewardship Incentive Fund, and determine the eligibility criteria for professionals outside the traditional forestry profession to write Forest Stewardship Plans.
  • Forest sustainability and Forest Stewardship Plan criteria that address the broader threats to forest systems such as overabundant white-tailed deer, non-native invasive plants and animals.  Land Stewards have been at the cutting edge of developing effective strategies to deal with these problems and our input and experience will be vital to the program being a success.

Let me know in the comments what you think of the new Forest Stewardship Law!