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Legislators Can’t See the Forest for the Fees


A full moon rising over Osgood Pond near Paul Smiths, N.Y - Adirondack spruce forests and bogs will be destroyed as NY climate and growing season become like Georgia due to global warming. Credit Ruth Fremson, NY Times

“People have to realize there is nothing going on with our state forests right now,” said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the bill’s sponsor. “That’s why we need an innovative program in the middle of this economic morass to generate revenue to help protect them.” 

“Cutting a 100-year-old oak is about as popular as shooting puppies,” Allen said. ~~~ Star Ledger 12/12/11

[Important Update below]

As we previously noted, the Star Ledger yesterday reported that the legislature is poised to approve a bill that would allow commercial logging on state owned lands: public parks, forests and green acres (see S1954[2R]).

The bill was heard last summer in the Senate Environment Committee and presumed dead since then. But seemingly out of nowhere, the controversial measure re-emerged and moved quickly in the lame duck session.

While the sponsors mouth rhetoric to justify the bill (e.g. to promote forest health, sustainable forests, and reduce wild fire risks, etc), the real objectives of the bill are hidden in plain sight.

The primary objectives are economic (from the bill):

e. The Legislature further finds and declares that it is in the public interest to explore ways to create an economic market for forest products; that such products may serve as renewable biomass, which may be used to produce energy; and that such renewable sources of energy could reduce the use of coal and other fossil fuels, thereby reducing carbon emissions.

f. The Legislature further finds and declares that thinning the forests in State-owned 2[land] lands2 would provide much needed revenue to manage 2[the State’s parks and forests] State-owned forested lands2 ; that the establishment of a viable market for such products would create”green” jobs for the citizens of New Jersey and produce new revenue streams for the State; and that such a market may provide the support necessary to encourage responsible and sustainable forest stewardship throughout the State.

Further, but subtle, evidence of an economic purpose was the deletion of the key phrase “forest ecosystems” from the “sustainable management practices” findings of Section 1.d of the bill. This moves the focus and objectives away from ecosystem functions and towards logging.

These economic objectives are not ameliorated by the attempt to limit the damage by amending the bill to eliminate funding for “operation and management of state parks and forests” and limiting it to recovery of the costs of the logging program:

e. All revenues for the program shall be deposited into a dedicated, nonlapsing special account within the Department of Environmental Protection.  Moneys in the account shall be used by the department 2[only for the operation and management of the State’s parks and forests] to cover the reasonable costs of implementing the program.  Any remaining revenues shall be deposited into a dedicated nonlapsing special account in the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust, to be used only for restoration projects to increase biodiversity, or to enhance habitat for rare, threatened or endangered flora or fauna, on lands held or managed by the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust, in State parks and forests, or in State wildlife management areas.  Interest earnings and any return on investment of moneys deposited in the account shall be credited to the account.  Moneys in the account may be disbursed by the trust for projects upon written request by the forest stewardship advisory committee established pursuant to section 8 of P.L.2009, c.256 (C.13:1L-36)2.

The fact of the matter is that as soon as you allow a bureaucracy to generate fees to fund itself, everything else goes out the window as the bureaucracy does whatever it has to do to crank out revenues to fund itself.

Over the last 20 yeas, DEP has become increasingly reliant on fees to fund environmental programs.

While this has been justified as implementing the “polluter pays” principle, as a result, two very bad things have happened at DEP as a result of what amounts to a perverse incentive system:

1) environmentally destructive fee funded activitieslike permits – are increased dramatically and rubber stamped in order to generate revenues. DEP’s own data show that DEP approves 95-99% of permit applications. Because permits are their lifeblood, permits must be issued.

2) Essential public non fee generating functions – like science and research, monitoring, data collection and management, environmental standards development, natural resource management, regulations, policy development, planning, community involvement, technology, staff training, etc – are underfunded, ignored, downsized, and/or eliminated.

The commercial logging bill would play right into this dynamic and result in all kinds of poorly designed and poorly monitored “sustainable forestry” practices.

The bill would provide a green light to destroy our forests and we must not let that happen.

The New York Forestry Experience

In addition to this perverse incentive system that results from fee based government, the bill fails to address the real and more important risks to healthy forest ecosystems.

As outlined in this recent “Response to Climate Change in New York State” Report, those risks are caused by:

  • global warming impacts
  • pollution – acid rain deposition, nitrogen loading, and ozone
  • land use changes – development and fragmentation
  • invasive species (exacerbated by global warming changes)
  • deer

If NJ legislators and DEP are serious about protecting NJ’s forests, they might want to look at NY State’s forest management programs – including their “Forest Resource Assessment Strategy” report and Forest Health Aerial Survey Program.

The Pennsylvania Forestry Experience

For an example of why we should be thankful that, as Senator Smith says, “nothing is going on in NJ’s forests” and to learn what NOT TO DO in FORESTS, legislators need look to our western neighbor, Pennsylvania, where headlines like this are generated:

Can Pennsylvania’s State Forests Survive Additional Marcellus Shale Drilling?

Pennyslvania is allowing this devastation to occur for economic reasons, particularly the explosion in revenues from oil and gas leases.

Yet, a recent Pennsylvania DNR Report  “Impacts of leasing additional state forest for natural gas development paints an absolutely devastating picture of the complete destruction of ecologically sensitive forest lands.

That superb Report uses GIS mapping technology to illustrate the devastation caused by fracking – and this does NOT include all the pipelines, air pollution and global warming impacts that fracking will cause.

I strongly urge my readers, all legislators, and citizens to read this Report for a cruel lesson of what happens when market based economic objectives drive land and forest management policy.

Besides, in Trenton, They Shoot Puppies, Don’t They?

[Update: a call from a friend made me realize that I left out the policy and political context of this legislation.

The bill would implement Governor Christie’s “Sustainable Funding Strategy for NJ State Parks” and the Governor’s Privatization policies under EO 17.

Christie’s strategy calls for exactly the same approach as the legislation – increase private revenue sources and reduce reliance on the General Fund appropriations:

Vision Of The Sustainable Funding Strategy For State Parks

What New Jersey State Parks look like with an implemented sustainable funding strategy:

  • · The Parks are financially stable.
  • · New funding sources are in place to sustain Parks with reduced reliance on the General Fund.
  • · The keys to financial sustainability are demonstrated value, expanded opportunities for marketing and revenue, and elimination of functions and expenses that are not mission-critical.

Thus, the accountability must be assigned to the Governor – I doubt Senator Smith would move this controversial bill without a big green light from there front office.

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