Home > Uncategorized > NJ Audubon Is Misrepresenting Facts, Science and Regulations In Defending Their Sparta Mountain Logging Plan

NJ Audubon Is Misrepresenting Facts, Science and Regulations In Defending Their Sparta Mountain Logging Plan

John Cecil, head of logging at NJ Audubon, was interviewed and focused on responding to criticism of the Audubon’s logging plan for Sparta Mountain that had been reported in prior press stories, see:

Here’s where Cecil got his facts and science wrong. I’ll just touch briefly upon the 2 biggest and most obvious. (even the golden wing warbler justification has been debunked, but that set of issues requires its own updated post).

1. Amount and rate of logging

News reports have stated as a fact that the plan would log an average of 20 acres per year. NJ Audubon has repeated – and we believe originated – that false claim.

In my view, that reporting was false because: 1) it significantly underestimated the acreage proposed to be logged; 2) ignored the damage of roads, operations, and equipment storage; 3) falsely claimed that the logging was selective tree cuts, not “seed treatment” clear cuts; and 4) ignored the fact that the first 10 years was just phase 1 of a 60 year plan that targeted at least 90% of the entire 3,400 acres of SMWMA for some form of logging – just 4% – 10% was reserved for “old growth” (see page 21).

But now, Mr. Cecil spins that 10 year underestimate and further minimizes the scope of the plan by focusing on just the first 2 years!

The overriding concern about the plan is the cumulative effect of clear cutting 20 acres of forest a year for 10 years.  Cecil explained that this was not an accurate interpretation of the plan.  Rather “the actual schedule is five to 10 acres for the first two years.”

Here are the facts from the plan itself that expose Cecil’s spin:

The Plan The Stewardship Plan describes its proposed “Ten Year Management Schedule” on pages 68 – 72. Our analysis indicates that over the 10-year period, up to 715 acres will be managed with practices that remove forest canopy, including “seed tree,” which is basically clearcutting with a few trees left standing; “shelterwood,” which is essentially patches or strips of clearcutting; and “single tree selection,” which generally removes the largest, most mature (and most financially valuable) trees in the forest. The plan indicates that the following Timber Stands will receive the management described above between 2016 and 2025. Located approximately from north to south on the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area Stand Map. (Source: Emile DeVito, PhD, NJCF)

Stand 33: Single Tree Selection (canopy removal)                             25 – 80 Acres

Stand 32: Seed Tree (clearcut)                                                          10 – 30 Acres

Stand 30: Single Tree Selection (canopy removal) and                      30 – 80 Acres

Hemlocks group selection

Stand 28: Seed Tree (clearcut)                                                           10 – 30 Acres

Stand 27: Seed Tree (clearcut)                                                           10 – 30 Acres

Stand 25: Single Tree Selection (canopy removal) and                      10 – 30 Acres

Hemlocks group selection

Stand 22: Shelterwood (strip clearcut) and Crown Thinning            20 – 60 Acres

Stand 21: Single Tree Selection (canopy removal)                             75 – 145 Acres

Stand 18: Seed Tree (clearcut)                                                           25 – 70 Acres

Shelterwood (strip clearcut)                                              5 – 10 Acres

Stand 12: Seed Tree (clearcut)                                                           10 – 30 Acre

Stand 9:   Shelterwood (strip clearcut)                                               20 – 60 Acres

Stand 8: Seed Tree (clearcut)                                                             10 – 20 Acres

Stand 7: Seed Tree (clearcut)                                                             5 – 10 Acres

Stand 1 and/or 2: Seed Tree (clearcut)                                               10 – 30 Acres

               Proposed Logging Over Ten Years 2016 – 2025:         275 – 715 Acres

The first 2 years call for logging on 59 – 99 acres, with 15 – 30 acres designated as “seed tree treatments” which means clearcut (see photos).

Mr. Cecil again flat out lies about years 3 – 4:

Years three and four would be “a pause, no activity for young forest habit.”  That will be followed in “years five and six with getting the forest to be like an old growth forest.” Cecil explained that would be “single tree selection or group selection” of trees selectively removed, not clear cut like for young growth.

Not true: For year 3, the plan calls for 10 – 30 acres of “Seed tree” (stand 12, clearcut) and 10 – 30 acres “crown thinning/shelterwood”. For year 4, 10 – 30 acres would be logged as “shelterwoood”. That obviously is not a “pause, no activity” and 2 years does not bring a forest to “old growth” conditions.

Again, regarding total logging, Cecil spins – see the above and sum the “seed tree treatments (clear cuts):

Throughout the project 80 to120 acres of the Sparta Mountain WPA is proposed to be clear cut for young forest and 125 to 300 acres would be cut to mimic old growth forest according to Cecil.

2. Stream Buffers and water quality impacts

The Plan does not meet the minimum buffer requirements of DEP designated “Category One” (C1) and trout production waters, freshwater wetlands, or those of the Highlands Act for the Preservation zone.

Those buffers are part of a policy, adopted in the State Water Quality Standards and the Highlands Act, to protect those waters from “any change in existing water quality”.

Here is Mr. Cecil’s spin about that:

Concerns regarding cutting near to water ways, lakes and ponds were raised as well.  While the forest is located in the Highlands area the forest plan calls for cutting closer to water than the Highlands established buffer zones.  Cecil explains that the Highlands Act was written to discuss development and issues such as impervious coverage. They will be “looking at water buffer zones” within the WMA.  While “it has been considered” they “want to be sure we’re not damaging water and forest.”  Cecil said they are already a “good distance from lake communities” adding “maybe we can create some more space.”

The DEP’s C1 designations were not based on impervious cover or limited to development – they were designed to prevent degradation of water quality, especially in sensitive trout production streams. The DEP’s 300 foot buffers are a “best management practice” (BMP) to implement that policy.

They C1 designations and the 300 out buffers were not based upon or limited to development and impervious cover as Cecil claims.

The DEP’s concern was to limit disturbance of riparian soils and vegetation, which itself caused erosion and destroyed habitat, and protect the ecological values and the ability of natural undisturbed stream buffers to filter non point source pollutants, like the sediments and heavy metals and nutrients that result from logging. Additionally, forested riparian buffers provide shade that keeps streams cool, so that they can support trout.

I know, I wrote them – here’s the official regulatory basis: (see 35 N.J.R. 136; January 6, 2003)

The water quality criteria and pollutant removal efficiency of BMPs established in the available literature are based upon the ability of BMPs to remove Total Suspended Solids (TSS). This is sufficient in most streams to preserve water quality and removing TSS will also remove some of the other common non-point source pollutants. However, Category One Waters need additional protections due to their exceptional value and characteristics. ….

…   The effect of the proposed subsection is to establish a buffer … in order to preserve the existing aesthetic and ecological values of the area. Designation [of C1 buffers] areas of existing herbaceous and woody vegetation is proposed as the best available and most reliable method.

The DEP then went on to summarize a large body of scientific literature that documented the ecological and water quality benefits of naturally vegetated riparian buffers.

That same water quality policy and science formed the basis of the identical 300 foot buffer requirements in the Highlands Act – I know, I wrote both.

But even more importantly, Mr. Cecil lies by omission, by ignoring the totally inadequate buffers in his plan and the large body of scientific literature that documents adverse water quality impacts caused by logging.

I summarize them in a recent post, including USGS study in the Catskills that found 100% trout mortality caused by small scale logging in the nearby Catskills.

So, because Mr. Cecil pretends to have considered the science and arrogantly implies that the public is too stupid to understand his lofty plan, let me summarize them again here: Literature summarized by Jay Kelly, PhD, RVCC)

  1. Effects on Water Yield and Peak Flow Rates:

At Hubbard Brook, clearfelling (where no roads were created, no logs were removed and herbicides were applied) produced a “dramatic response,” causing annual water yields to increase by an average of 32% for the 3-year period immediately after cutting (Hornbeck et al. 2014). In a similar clearcut (where roads were created and logs were removed), 23% increases in stream flow occurred, followed by 5-8% increases in the 13 years afterwards, and decreases in stream flow from year 13 to year 34 due to increased transpiration from regeneration. Similarly, shelterwood stripcutting caused increased yield of 4-9% for seven years, then decades of decreased water flow. Minor increases or decreases in water flow followed. At Coweeta, increases to water yield persisted for 5-6 years, followed by decreases in water yield after years 16-17 resulted from increased regeneration (Hornbeck et al. 2014).

In additional to overall water yield, peak flow rates at Coweeta increased by an average of 15% during first 4 years after clearcutting, and 29% at the Hubbard Brook clearcut. However, “Depending upon antecedent soil moisture, peak-flow rates during the growing season can be increased by up to 60% in the first 1-2 years after harvest” (Hornbeck et al. 2014).

  1. Soil Disturbance and Sediment Yield:

Although logging adhered to best management practices at Hubbard Brook (NH), “considerable soil disturbance still occurred” (Hornbeck et al. 2014). Surveys after stripcutting and clearcutting showed that 70% and 67% of the respective watershed areas had soil disturbances of varying degrees. Disturbance in the clearcut ranged from nearly 4% of the entire watershed having the forest floor intact but depressed by one pass of logging equipment, to 18% covered with wheel or track ruts into mineral soil. Logging disturbed the forest-floor soil horizons to the point where nearly 28% of the clearcut exhibited bare mineral soil (including scalped mineral mounds, mineral ruts, and bare rocks).

At Hubbard Brook, soil disturbances from logging led to increases in sediment yield for decades. In control watersheds (where no cutting occurred) sediment yield was from 1-95kg/ha (average=25kg/ha) depending upon watershed and year. In the stripcutting it was 3-146kg/ha, and 3 to 208 kg/ha in the clearcut. At Coweeta, 50% increases in sediment yield were observed in the 5-15 year period after cutting. (Hornbeck et al. 2014)

  1. Soil Chemical Status:

Soil nutrient losses following clearcuts are dramatic. Average losses of nitrates in the Catskills in the 3 years following clearcuts were 256% in the O horizon and 744% in the B horizon, with peaks as high as 1405% and 3812% (O and B horizons, respectively) (McHale et al. 2007). For other nutrients, losses in the B horizon averaged 120% for Calcium, 126% for Magnesium, and 284% for Potassium, along with 39% increases in Sulfates. Changes of similar scales were observed at Hubbard Brook (McHale et al. 2008). For nitrogen, Likens (1978) estimated it would take 100 years to recover the amounts lost in the 3 years following clearcuts.

At Coweeta, exchangeable Mg and K remained above pretreatment levels at 17 and 20 years after harvest. Total soil N and C in the upper soil horizons increased in the first 3 years by ≥50%. Soil N and C pools at Hubbard Brook were decreased by 17% and 27% at the 8th year due to reductions in mass of the forest floor.

  1. Stream Water Nutrients/Nutrient Budgets:

All three experimental treatments at Hubbard Brook caused stream water levels of calcium, potassium, hydrogen ions, and nitrates to increase and sulfates to decrease dramatically. In the clearfelling at Hubbard Brook, Calcium and Potassium levels increased by several hundred percent and Nitrates by several thousand percent in the first four years after cutting, followed by additional elevated levels for the 14 years studied (Hornbeck et al. 2014). Nitrate levels in stream water increased 3985% to 5528% in the first and second year after cutting, Calcium 256% and 317%, Magnesium 265% and 308%, and Potassium 911% and 1458% (Likens 1970). Over 14 years, there was a cumulative increase of 54% in Calcium output (relative to controls), 172% for Potassium and 375% for Nitrates and 9% for Sulfates (Hornbeck et al. 2014). Changes to stream nutrients were still measurable several decades after the clearcut took place (Likens 2004).

Major increases in hydrogen ion concentrations also led to significant increases in stream acidity in both the Catskills and Hubbard Brook. At Hubbard Brook there was a 5-fold increase in Hydrogen ions, resulting in a decrease in stream water pH from 5.1 to 4.3 in the first two years after clearfelling (Likens et al. 1970). A similar drop in stream pH occurred in the Catskills, from 6.0 to 5.6 (McHale et al. 2007).

  1. Stream Invertebrates and Brook Trout

A recent study in the Catskills found major increases in mortality of brook trout following clearcuts (McHale et al. 2008), with total mortality in the first 7 days after logging, and 85% mortality the following year, compared to 0-15% mortality before clearcuts, and almost none in the controls. Mortality likely resulted from increased stream acidity and mobilization of Aluminum, which is toxic to the fish.

Three indices of stream invertebrate communities were also altered sufficiently in the Catskills to exceed the threshold for “slight impairment” of the site (McHale et al. 2008). These included total species richness, EPT richness (i.e., clear-water invertebrates such as mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies) and HBI (a measure of the tolerance of organisms to stream pollutants). There were also observed shifts in the species composition of stream invertebrates, including a decline in the gatherer feeding groups and an increase in the shredder feeding groups.

At Hubbard Brook, clearcutting reduced the species of diversity of stream invertebrates, but increased their abundance (Hornbeck et al. 2014). At Coweeta, clearcutting was accompanied by a greater sediment load than at Hubbard Brook and impacted all aspects of the invertebrate habitat and community. By 16 years after clearcutting, benthic invertebrate abundance was still 3 times higher and invertebrate biomass and production were two times higher than in controls.

  1. Combined Effects of Deer

In addition to the direct effects of clearcutting in the Catskills, indirect effects were also observed by deer herbivory, which suppressed vegetation regeneration and the uptake of nutrients by plants (McHale et al. 2008), leading to increases in soil and stream water. Four years after the clearcutting, nitrogen uptake by vegetation in the open clearcut (with no deer exclosure) was only one-fifth of uptake by plants within the area of the clearcut protected by a deer exclosure.


Given just these brief summaries, the interpretation of previous research and assessment of potential impacts to hydrology in the SMWMA plan seem wholly inadequate. All of the studies referenced found major and lasting impacts to water and soil quality to varying degrees, despite the adherence of logging activities to the best management practices (Hornbeck et al. 2014). Like NJ, the best management practices for forestry activities in these other states (e.g., NH) call for buffers of 50’ or more from streams depending upon slope and other considerations. However, given the known impacts of vegetation removal to water quality, buffers of 300’ are generally recommended throughout the Highlands Preservation Area and along C1 streams. While the forestry BMPs are designed to reduce impacts to water quality, no evidence was provided to confirm that they are actually effective in doing so, and the sum of existing research suggests that major impacts are likely to result.

The SMWMA plan also notes that the proposed clearcuts are generally smaller than the studies previously conducted, but this is not necessarily the case. The studies mentioned involved clearcuts ranging from approximately 100-300 acres, but the proposed acreages of lands to be clearcut and/or selectively logged range from a minimum of 15-60 acres per year to a maximum of 40-120 acres logged per year in the next ten years (for a total of 361 acres to 891 acres impacted). In seven of the ten years in the plan, up to 90-120 acres may be logged per year. Whatever the size of the individual clearcuts, proportionate effects may be expected to impact stream and soil quality, and similar or greater cumulative effects as the previous studies may in fact be expected to occur at SMWMA, depending upon how many acres of land are logged over the ten year period.

Lastly, the many effects that were described in these studies were not solely caused by poorly maintained logging roads, as the authors of the SMWMA plan seem to suggest, but the results of heavy machinery used throughout the sites to conduct the logging. How is it possible to avoid the documented impacts to soils, soil water and stream water quality without eliminating the use of heavy machinery? Again, while the forestry BMPs are designed to reduce these kinds of impacts, there is no evidence that they are actually effective at doing so, and seem more suited to merely avoid the worst case scenarios.

All of these issues are a major concern given the high natural resource values of the site, including the large amount of C1 streams and sensitive wetlands on the property, as well as the location of the property within the greater Highlands, which is given special protections in New Jersey in the interest of specifically protecting water quality. The authors should give more thorough and unbiased acknowledgement of the impacts, rather than casually dismissing these concerns, and be far more conservative in their prescriptions of management activities to avoid impacts to water and soil quality at SMWMA.


Hornbeck, J.W., A.S. Bailey, C. Eagar, J.L. Campbell. 2014. Comparisons With Results From the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the Northern Appalachians (Chapter 13, pgs. 213-228) in Swank, W.T. and J.R. Webster (eds.) Long-term Response of a Forested Watershed Ecosystem: Clearcutting in the Southern Appalachians, Oxford University Press.

McHale, M.R., Murdoch, P.S., Burns, D.A., and Baldigo, B.P. 2008. Effects of forest harvesting on ecosystem health in the headwaters of the New York City water supply, Catskill Mountains, New York: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008–5057, 22 p.

McHale, M.R., Burns, D.A., G.B. Lawrence, and P.S. Murdoch. 2007. Factors controlling soil water and stream water aluminum concentrations after a clearcut in a forested watershed with calcium-poor soils. Biogeochemistry 84: 311-331.

Likens, G.E., F.H. Bormann, N.E. Johnson, D.W. Fisher, and R.S. Pierce. 1970. Effects of forest cutting and herbicide treatment on nutrient budgets in the Hubbard Brook watershed-ecosystem. Ecological Monographs 40:23-47.

Likens, G.E., F.H. Bormann, R.S. Pierce, and W.A. Reiners. 1978. Recovery of a deforested ecosystem. Science 199:492-496.

Likens, G.E. 2004. Some perspectives on long-term biogeochemical research from the Hubbard Brook ecosystem. Ecology 85: 2355-2362.

[End Note: NJ audubon also made this completely misleading claim:

The plan for the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management was developed under the guidance and review of third-party certification standards. This certification standard has been endorsed or supported by:

  • Sierra Club

  • Greenpeace

Sierra Club NJ Chapter and Greenpeace have both written that they have not supported the SMWMA plan and NJ Chapter actively is opposing it. There is a huge difference between endorsing the FSC standard and supporting a specific plan and Audubon knows that. Shame on them.

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