Home > Uncategorized > DEP Will Try To Ram Through Approval of Bull’s Island Tree Cutting Tomorrow

DEP Will Try To Ram Through Approval of Bull’s Island Tree Cutting Tomorrow

DEP Plan Calls for a “Safe, Managed, Pedestrian Pathway” To Replace Mature Forest

This is not what a wild & scenic river park looks like

I just learned that the DEP Bull’s Island State Park tree cutting plan is up for approval tomorrow at the D&R Canal Commission.

The location of the 10 am hearing has been moved to Lambertville, in anticipation of a turnout, so, despite the holiday season, I hope you can find a way to get there and voice your opposition. (see this for details on location, time).

The D&R Canal Commission staff has recommended approval, so looks like the deal is in. The key regulatory flaw I see is that staff exempted the project from the stream corridor standards. The project could not meet the prohibited uses and standards in those rules. Staff applied a truly bizarre logic to do tis by claim the Delaware River did not “flow” into the Canal – the river is the source of the canal!

The DEP backed off the prior insane clearcut plan, but while this plan is scaled back, it still is totally unnecessary, has major public access to and use of the riverfront prohibited, and the design sucks.

You can find the documents and background own the project in my recent post, written before I knew the hearing was tomorrow. Below is a letter I just fired off – apologies for formatting and typo errors, stream of consciousness, so , feel fee to use whatever you agree with.

Dear Director Dooley and D&R Canal Commissioners:
Please accept the following comments in opposition to the DEP’s proposed project in Bull’s Island State Park.
I apologize for the rushed timing and limited nature of these comments, but the DEP application will be heard tomorrow and the new Commissioners need to understand the history and nature of the controversy surrounding this project.
As described in more detail below, the primary flaws with this DEP proposal are:
  • The Commission’s review process is totally inadequate to allow the concerned public and affected park users to review and meaningfully comment on the DEP’s plan;
  • The DEP’s plan would severely limit current public access to and uses of the Park, including prohibited public access north of the wing dam to the tip of the island. A gate will be installed to limit access to the canal side of the island as well.
  • The DEP’s plan will transform a natural mature riverine forest ecosystem to a golf course or development landscape. Just look at the “restoration” of the 400 foot scar along the riverfront, where DEP park managers destroyed existing vegetation 2 years ago for an example of DEP’s design aesthetics, standards, project management capabilities, and maintenance practices.
  • The DEP’s contractor brings a civil engineering expertise, not the required landscape architecture design qualifications for this sensitive and majestic park setting along a Congressionally designated Wild & Scenic River;
  • The DEP’s plan will exacerbate erosion of the island, worsen edge tree blowdowns, and – by removing trees in the floodplain – worsen downriver flooding; and
  • The DEP’s plan is an insult to the more than 20,000 people who cared enough about preservation of Bull’s Island trees to sign a petition PEER drafted. The staff report mentions 80 emails, but it fails to mention that at all, and thereby downplays the magnitude of public interest in Bull’s Island.
I)    The Review process is totally inadequate, and appears to be designed to frustrate public participation

Here is the review chronology I could glean from the staff report, which was just very recently posted on the Commission’s website. I could not locate the DEP plans, or the supporting documents cited in the staff report:
  • Transmittal Letter to ED Dooley November 18
  • Project received on December 11
  • Accepted for review december 13
  • posted for public comment sometime after that
  • Commission review December 18
The project is in the Park (per the staff report).
Rules require: (@NJAC 7:45-3.5)
  1. Any State agency planning to undertake a governmental project in the Park shall submit a complete application together with all supporting information to the Commission. 
    1. The Commission shall, within 45 days of receiving a copy of the complete application and all supporting information, either approve, reject, or approve with conditions the governmental project. The Commission shall notify the State agency of the Commission’s decision within 10 days of that decision in accordance with N.J.A.C. 7:45-3.7. 
Contrary to staff’s conclusion, the application not complete as discussed below and therefore the 45 review clock can not have begun.
For starters, the application does not meet Subchapter 10 requirements – e.g. where is this?
A plan showing the location, type and size or dimension of existing trees with diameter at breast height of 12” or greater, rock masses, and all other natural and man-made features, with designation of the features that will be retained in the completed development.
II)   DEP methodology seriously flawed

The DEP has misapplied a cursory and flawed tree hazard assessment methodology and the wrong risk assessment and risk management framework. Please see the paper I previously sent which provides a science based methodology that illustrates these flaws.
Key flaws include:
1. The tree hazard assessment is not comprehensive – root collar and adventitious root analysis are only some factors that must be considered in evaluating the health of a tree and the probability of failure;
2. the risk methodology DEP applied is suited for much higher risk landscapes, urban in nature, where there is far greater public use and more risk in the “target zone”.
Basically, Bull’s Island is not central park.
As evidence of this fundamental flaw, I note that there was no data provided regarding visitor use of the current path or the “safe pedestrian pathway” DEP plans.
Without data there can be no valid risk assessment and without a valid risk assessment there can be no risk management. And without risk management there can be no rational landscape and park management decisions oct plans.
3. DEP has exaggerated the risks – of tree failure and target zones. There is no data to base DEP’s decisions on.
4. DEP closure of the park to camping and planned removal of facilities that invite people into the target zone – i.e. campsites, playgrounds, paved roads, benches, restrooms – is a good idea and an adequate risk reduction strategy.
Given these risk reduction measures, there is no reason to cut any trees, regardless of their health.
5. Without providing data, species, or locations, DEP claims that 30 tress have been downed since the fatality.
I’ve visited the island multiple times since then and highly doubt this number. I challenge DEP to provide evidence in support of that claim – photos and maps.
Furthermore, DEP ignores the fact that there have been 2 hurricanes and a heavy October snowfall since then.
DEP also ignores the fact that there rarely are people in target sones doing storm events that take down trees,
Even worse, DEP provides no baseline data from other nearby locations to put this 30 tree failure in context.
DEP ignores the fact that the trees on Bull’s Island are adapted to riverine flooding sediment and storm conditions.
Based on my anecdotal experiences of walking in forests, it is very likely that Bull’s Island trees  faired much better in the 3 major storms than other trees in nearby forests.
On top of all that, if we were to apply DEP’s policy and methodology to the southern Natural Area – which exhibits very similar forest and sediment conditions –  far more trees would be cut and access restricted there too.
III)  DEP plan is not in the public interest

Because there is insignificant risk, the public access and use restrictions are not justified.
Nor is the destruction of mature trees and are the huge alterations in the landscape and natural character of the park.
There are many far more important uses of scarce taxpayer resources to maintain and manage real problems in NJ Parks and public lands.
IV)  DEP design is bad

Visitors to Bull’s Island do not come to experience a “safe pedestrian walkway”.

They come to obtain a superb natural experience, whether walking, birding, bicycling, canoeing, Kayaking, or fishing.
Visitors understand and knowingly and voluntarily accept the infinitesimal risk that a tree might fall and kill them while they are visiting.

V)   Canal Commission staff report is flawed
1. The prior clearcut plan is not the correct baseline to evaluate this project
The staff report cites pubic opposition to a prior informal DEP clearcut plan. Just because this current proposal is “better” and a scaled back version of the prior insane clearcut plan does not make it acceptable.
2. The exemption from stream corridor standards is in error
The staff report exempted the project from the stream corridor standards. Here is how the applicable regulations define a stream corridor (boldface mine):
NJAC 7:45-1.3

Stream corridor” means any water course that flows into the Park, its tributaries, the 100-year floodplain associated with the water course and its tributaries, and all of the land within a 100-foot buffer adjacent to the 100-year flood line associated with the water courses and their tributaries. For any water course and its tributaries that discharge into the Canal, the stream corridor includes the water course and its tributaries, and either the 100-year floodplain associated with the water course and its tributaries and a 100 foot buffer adjacent to the 100- year flood line associated with the water course and its tributaries, or 300 feet along both sides of the water course or tributary, measured from the top of the water course’s banks, whichever is greater. A stream corridor starts from the point that the water course enters the Park, upstream to the point that the water course or its tributaries drain less than 50 acres.

The Delaware River is the boundary of the park and the source water of the canal.

Of course the river is a “water course that flows into the park” and of course it meets the definitional attributes.

Of course the 100 year floodplain of the river is mapped on park lands that would be destroyed by the DEP plan.

Of course a 100 foot buffer applies to the lands that would be destroyed by this project.

3. Project could not meet stream corridor standards:

The following are  “Prohibited uses”under applicable rules:

  • Regrading of the existing topography;
  • Removal of native vegetation or actions that result in the death of native vegetation except as necessary in connection with activities in the stream corridor permitted by the Commission;
  • Installation of non-native vegetation
The DEP plan violates each one of these prohibited uses. Tree removal and construction of a “safe pedestrian pathway” would regrade existing topography, remove native vegetation and install non-native vegetation (as well as cause a disturbance that would invite invasive species).

4. “Recreational paths” are explicitly included as a conditional use in the stream corridor – so obviously the stream corridor standards apply

5. The Project doe not meet the general visual impact standards that apply to a natural area (7:45-10.2(a))

Here are the general visual impact standards (emphasis mine):


The Commission shall review all projects in Zone A to determine if the project is in accord with the goals for the Park as defined in the Park’s Master Plan. The visual, historic and natural quality impact review is intended to assure that development within Zone A is not harmful to the character of the environmental types identified in the Master Plan as comprising the Park. The environmental types are based upon the character of the section of the Park and its adjoining corridor. The six environmental types are:

  1. Natural: Sign of human impact are non-existent or slight; 

Obviously, cutting 40 inch DGH mature trees will be harmful to the character of the forest.

Obviously, construction of a “safe pedestrian pathway” and 50 foot wide cleared vegetation of each side would be a highly visible and disturbing sign of hum a impact.

6. The project does not meet the design standards (NJAC 7:45-10.4)

Here are the design standards that apply and that are violated by DEP’s plan:


(a) Except as provided in N.J.A.C. 7:45-10.3 major and minor projects in Zone A shall be set back from the Park sufficiently far so that the winter visual and natural quality of the Park is not adversely affected. 

     In natural and rural environments all structures shall be located 250 feet or more from the Park.

     In any area where existing vegetation does not provide adequate winter screening, the project shall include landscaping, or a greater setback, or both, to protect the Park’s      visual environment. 


  1. Major and minor projects in Zone A shall maintain a reasonable height and scale relationship to nearby structures or vegetation.  
    1. For major and minor projects in Zone A, the exterior appearances of a project shall be in keeping with the character of the Park’s individual environments 

Wherever possible, natural terrains, soils, stones, and vegetation should be preserved.  

Let’s start from the bottom:

The purpose of the DEP plan is to cut natural vegetation, so of course it can not meet a standard that requires preservation of natural vegetation.

The purpose of the DEP plan is to excavate and grade soils and stone and create a “safe pedestrian pathway”, so of course this standard can not be met.

A ‘safe pedestrian pathway” as proposed by DEP is obviously not in keeping with the mature forested area of the park it would replace.

The DEP plan calls for cutting down mature 100 foot+ tall trees and repacking them with ground shrubs and 10-15 foot tall bushes and mall trees. This obviously violates the height, scale, and textural relationships that now exist in the mature forest and understory.

The DEP tree removal will be visible year round from the canal path, the park, and the river. It will be seen as a scar on the landscape.

The DEP will build  a new “structure” in the park – not 250 feet from the park, another obvious violation.

Last, there are no set backs or buffers provided by DEP’s plan.

For the above reasons, I strongly urge the Commissioner to procure a qualified landscape architect and park planner to review this project.

I strongly urge the Commission to ask the applicant DEP to provide at least a 60 day public review period before the Commission considers this plan.

If DEP is unwilling to do this, the Commission must reject the application as violate of the D&R Canal Plan and regulations.

Again, I  apologize for the haste, typos, and formatting error in these comments.


Bill Wolfe, Director


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