Salving the Wounds of the Forest
The stewardship of New Jersey forests is a group effort, and many members of that group came together at Raritan Valley Community College on March 1 to compare notes on the latest research. New Jersey’s State Forester, John Sacco, set the tone for the gathering by invoking the words of Aldo Leopold -- considered by many to be the father of wildlife management and environmental ethics -- who once said that a student of ecology “lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”
“I didn’t come here to bum you out,” Sacco hastened to add, ”but to provide a little bit of hope. As foresters we’re uniquely trained to solve some of our ecological problems. We take the long view.” With that, Sacco listed a number of forest restoration efforts undertaken by the NJ Department of Forestry, and thus launched a full day of information exchange from a cadre of foresters, scientists, and students of forest ecology.
Sacco reminded us that forests are in the frontlines of the fight against greenhouse gasses. New Jersey’s 2 million acres of forest, for example, now fix two percent of the carbon emissions generated by the state’s 9 million residents. But human encroachment has changed the composition of our forests, to the point where some species are in danger of disappearing, unless there is a deliberate and painstaking effort to bring them back.
While the public is generally aware of the list of endangered animals, the list of endangered plants is much less well known. The names don’t roll easily off the tongue, and these plants don’t have the charisma that keeps cute pandas, for example, at the forefront of public adoration. 800 plant species - nearly 40% of the total state flora - are listed as rare or endangered in NJ. Diversity of trees in New Jersey, warned one of the speakers, is on the decline.
The threats to the survival of these plants are many:
Human agriculture and development have, of course, indelibly changed the landscape over the centuries. But some changes were due to pure greed. For example: Sacco says when New Jersey implemented the Green Acres Bond Act of 1961 to buy back large tracts of land in South Jersey, many landowners clear-cut the forest, mainly high value cedar, to squeeze the last profit off the land before selling to the state.
There is constant competition from invasive species, which the average recreational hiker might not even be aware of. Taken as a whole, returning forests may be nearly twice as invasive as natural.
There are the non-native bugs: gypsy moths, emerald ash borers, and the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid have decimated the state’s forests of oaks, ash and hemlocks.
There are natural disasters such as hurricanes and drought. The Pine Barrens have yet to fully recover from the 2010 drought.
And the shift in the balance of wildlife, especially deer, means saplings get eaten before they have a chance to become trees. Jay Kelly, an ecologist at Raritan Valley Community College and one of the organizers of the conference, pointed out that deer were once nearly wiped out by hunting, but an aggressive recovery program succeeded too well, to the point where the deer population is now more dense than the forests can bear.
Kelly went on to detail the meticulous, extensive, tree-by-tree examination of the forest conducted by his team of researchers and students. “We found the most dramatic decline in saplings and small trees,” he explained, “Deer have been superabundant for at least thirty years. If these trends continue we will be losing our forests. It’s really scary. The good thing about deer management though, is that we can do something about it.”
That optimism was echoed by another presenter, William Zipse of the NJ Forest Service. “The cool thing is we’re catching things before they happen. We just have to make some decisions. Come up with some strategies.”
The attendees of this conference obviously knew the philosophical question: “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” But if a tree falls in New Jersey -- even if no one hears it -- there’s a good chance a forest steward will come around and study it with the kind of clear-eyed focus that was on display at this conference. And there’s something reassuring about that.