Bass River Township — Portions of Bass River State Forest’s white pine plantation along East Greenbush Road in Bass River Township have been clear cut to allow for greater visibility for the 86-foot fire tower.
In April of last year, after much deliberation and protests from Bass River residents and those attached to the beauty of the white pines, the Pinelands Commission gave approval to the New Jersey Department of Environmental’s Forest Fire Service to clear 16.4 acres of white pines that had been planted during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The pines had grown so well over the years they dwarfed the fire tower, preventing clear visibility in the southeast direction where most of development has occurred on the coast. The raging Spring Hill Fire that swept through Greenwood Forest and the east plains of Bass River Forest a few weeks before the vote helped to turn the commission’s attention away from the beauty of the forest to the safety of life and property.
The Bass River State Forest fire tower covers an area of visibility of approximately 200 square miles for detecting and suppressing wildfire but a clear view to the east and south has been impeded because of the growth of the trees.
The service maintains that a public safety threat is posed to New Gretna, Ocean Acres, Smithville and Tuckerton due to obstructed views from the fire tower.
The 16.4 acres proposed for tree clearing are comprised of seven separate areas surrounding the fire tower. All trees within the seven areas will be removed. The seven areas range in size from 1 to 4 acres. All seven areas are located within approximately 1,400 linear feet of the fire tower and contain trees in excess of 90 feet tall.
An additional number of acres were scrapped from the plan after local input. But part of the area to be cut is the popular 3.5-mile pink trail frequented by hikers in the state forest.
In April, Bill Basher from the New Jersey Fire Safety Council said the history of wildfires in the area include seven firefighter fatalities (three in 1937 and four in 1977). “Fire towers in New Jersey also serve as command posts during fires. They help to coordinate resources and can relay crucial information to firefighters on the ground about fire behavior and wind shifts. Failure to remove these trees will increase the risk to residents and reduce firefighter safety.”
On Monday, Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, decried the forest’s destruction. “There are plenty of alternatives DEP could have proposed. They could build a new tower on the site or build it in another area that has a higher view with sensors and infrared technology; instead they have already cut down close to 7 acres of forest. With today’s technology, there is no need to cut down the forest in order to see the forest,” he said.
“We should be looking at solutions that use advanced technology to protect the Pinelands, not so-called solutions that actually result in less trees and less habitat. DEP cannot cut down any more trees. They should consider using advanced technology to improve conditions of the fire tower. This includes adding cameras and sensors on the tower or using drone, night-vision, and heat-sensing technology.”
According to the New Jersey State Forest Fire Service, the plans are to do the tree cutting in two phases, phase 1 of stands 1-4. 1 and 2 are on the west side of Greenbush Road in Bass River Township and 3 and 4 are on the east side.
The forestry service proposes to replant native tree seedlings as well as loblolly pine, a non-native species previously existing in the cleared areas. White pine, a non-native species, will not be replanted due to its fast rate of growth.
Site preparation for reforesting will be done between May and September when snakes are active so they can move out of the way of drum chopping or wood disking.
The Forest Fire Service will commemorate the planting of the lost white pines in the following way. “To memorialize the efforts of the CCC, the Department plans to retain some of the harvested trees from the CCC site. The wood will be re-purposed and used to construct interpretive kiosks to elucidate the CCC’s efforts in not only planting the trees, but also constructing the Bass River Fire Tower back in 1937 to protect the resource and the neighboring communities from the threat of wildfire.”
— Pat Johnson