Trenton — New Jersey has unveiled a new plan to de-forest a large swath of Bull’s Island State Park along the Delaware River Wild & Scenic corridor, according to documents posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This new plan may move to approval without public comment over the holidays as the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is seeking a “hardship” waiver from its own flood hazard control rules and the standards of the D&R Canal State Park Master Plan.
In an application for “Safety Improvements” filed with the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission on November 18, 2013, DEP proposes to remove all trees from a 50 foot buffer on both sides of a “safe, managed pedestrian pathway” across nearly four acres of the Bull’s Island Recreation Area. This “selective” cut will also remove sycamore and other trees along the Delaware River shore.
The plan is called a safety measure because in 2011 a camper was tragically killed and his wife injured when a huge sycamore snapped and fell on their tent. DEP conducted a tree “health assessment” and determined that around half the trees are at risk of “failure.”
“With camping banned, the safety value of hacking down scores more mature trees is dubious,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, pointing out the southern half of the island is completely natural and unmanaged yet open to visitors. “People do not need a safe corridor to walk through the woods.”
Besides permanently closing the area to camping, DEP also plans to remove two bathhouses and a playground. Visitor access will be limited to this manicured parkway, leaving the rest of the northern half of the island off-limits to hiking, fishing or canoeing.
“The net result of this plan will be far less visitor access to a magnificent riverfront forest,” Wolfe said, noting that Bull’s Island is a bird watchers mecca and one of the most renowned scenic corridors east of the Mississippi. “Converting this lovely natural, mature forest into a cheaply landscaped golf course-style walkway can hardly be called an improvement. Shrubs and pussy willow make a poor replacement for a towering 200-year-old tree canopy.”
The Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission could approve the DEP application within 30 days after it is deemed complete. DEP also wants the Commission to waive its visual impact rules which discourage tree removal. The project would, however, be subject to consultation with the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which raised concerns about a broader DEP clear-cut plan on Bull’s Island in 2012. PEER generated more than 20,000 signatures on an on-line petition in protest of that earlier plan.
“While we are pleased that DEP is not planning another huge clear-cut, it is still planning to take down a large number of old growth sycamores. The state should not short-circuit a full review by waiving permit rules,” Wolfe added, suggesting that the portfolio of DEP’s contractor does not feature ecological restoration work. “Of all the ecological work DEP could be doing, its persistence with this questionable project is mystifying.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability