A township resident questioned if the Jefferson Township council had any jurisdiction over what she described as “logging” in Mahlon Dickerson County Park.

Anne Augustyn asked her questions at the Wednesday, March 4, meeting township council meeting.

Mayor Eric Wilsusen said the Morris County Park Commission is not logging in the park but is thinning out the forest. He explained the township does not have jurisdiction.

Councilwoman Debi Merz said a hike through Mahlon Dickerson reveals there are many downed trees in the 3,435-acre park, the largest of the county park commission’s holdings.

The commission issued a 10-year Forest Stewardship Plan last fall and took public comment on it for some time.

The plan is on the commission website, which states its purpose is to “sustainably guide responsible forest management decisions over the next 10 years.” The commission worked with New Jersey Audubon to collect comprehensive data and process that data through modeling software, according to the report. The county also retained botanists from Wild Ridge Plants LLC in Pohatcong Township to conduct a botanical survey with an emphasis on rare plants and plant communities.

The Jefferson Township Democratic Committee will discuss the project at its Thursday, March 26, meeting. The Democratic Committee Facebook announcement calls the operation “profit-driven” and claims 20,550 trees will be removed.

Elliott Ruga of the Highlands Coalition will speak at the meeting, which will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at the lodge at Camp Jefferson. He said no one makes a profit on this sort of operation, but the loggers do sell the trees to defray costs. Kelli Kovacevic, director of park maintenance and natural resources management for the park commission, said the trees would sell for a very minimal amount.

Among the negative comments is a letter obtained by The Jefferson Chronicle written by Sara Webb, a professor emeritus of biology at Drew University. Webb still does forestry research and is “generally involved in forest ecology.”

She called herself “really shocked” that Kovacevic defended the plan.

In the letter, Webb contends the plan calls for clearing half the trees from “an area the size of 800 football fields if fully implemented.”

“That number has no meaning,” Kovacevic said. She said the contention that that number of trees would be removed assumes the plan continues for another 10 years after its completion.

Webb acknowledged she extrapolated from the description of plans for seven stands that the same would be done to the other seven.

Ruga acknowledged he had not read the Park Commission report, but Zachary Cole, outreach and education director for the coalition, has.

Cole said the figure cited by the Democrats sounds “awfully specific,” considering the proposal divides the park into 14 “stands,” each with specifics for management and calls for reevaluation at various times during the 10-year project.

Kovacevic said thinning will occur on 530 acres, about 15 percent of the total acreage. Between 20 and 60 trees per acre, up to a maximum of 22 percent of the trees per acre, will come out, depending on the stand. The thinning will concentrate on trees between four and 16 inches in diameter. At least 10 to 20 trees of 17 inches or more in diameter will remain per acre. About 8,000 trees of that size will be preserved on the 530 acres to be trimmed, she said.

Cole said the primary objection of the Highlands Coalition is that the project has not been fully justified. He also said the equipment brought in to harvest trees would be disruptive to the forest, could encourage invasive species, and could be detrimental to the Highlands Trail, which runs through Mahlon Dickerson.

Kovacevic said access to the areas to be worked on will probably be on the old woods roads that pre-date the park, not on the single track trails and that any damages will be repaired.

She noted the work will be performed to minimize harm to the Highlands Trail, but added it is not a static trail and could be re-routed if necessary.

Kovacevic first spoke about the plan back in December. She said at that time, there were many comments from the public.

A rock formation against a deep blue sky in Mahlon Dickerson. (Photo by Jane Primerano)

Webb based her objections on the amount of cutting she extrapolated. If that occurs, she contends several things will happen:

  • The spread of invasive species
  • The stimulation of the deer population
  • Loss of forest diversity
  • Disturbance of the soil, water and forest-dependent wildlife
  • Harm to the forest’s climate resilience and carbon sequestration

Kovacevic said one reason the park commission is targeting Mahlon Dickerson is it is not as heavily impacted by invasives as other commission holdings. She doesn’t expect a major increase in those non-native plants.

The monument to Mahlon Dickerson in the park. (Photo by Jane Primerano)

She also doesn’t expect the work to stimulate the deer population.

“The deer are doing well,” she said, noting the commission has an active deer management program as do the stewards of other nearby areas. The reservation is surrounded by state wildlife land.

Kovacevic acknowledged clear cutting changes the climate resilience of a forest but said that cutting for forest management should not. Webb argued that opening the forest canopy can still be damaging. She also noted wildlife can benefit from varied forest structures.

“It’s forest-friendly,” Kovacevic said of the plan. “We feel it is an ecological approach heavily supported by scientific studies.” She also explained the commission will assess the results as the plan is implemented.\

The monument to Mahlon Dickerson in the park. (Photo by Jane Primerano)

It is a very large project on the part of the park commission, Kovacevic said.

She also emphasized ash trees do not make up a large portion of the forest in Mahlon Dickerson, so the emerald ash borer threat is not too much of a problem.

The park commission has a management agreement for the adjacent land in Sparta Township, Sussex County, Kovacevic added. She also said the reservation is heavily used by hikers and campers.

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