Forests are destroyed and “nature lovers” help
In July 1921, Benton MacKaye, founder of regional planning and the visionary behind the Appalachian Trail, held a historic meeting with fellow conservationists at the secluded New Jersey lodge that would become Hudson Farm.
Dedicated to protecting the nation’s last wild places, they channeled the unfinished spirit of the coming age with a grand vision of the public realm that would advance the public interest and the democratic ideal across vast landscapes.
The first step towards this end, they said, was to liberate the land from industrial capitalism. The Appalachian Trail (AT), MacKaye proclaimed, would be “essentially a profit retreat.”
The property on which that fateful meeting was held is now owned by Wall Street billionaire Peter Kellogg. It is a fitting fate for the ancient lodge where the TA was born, as MacKaye’s vision of preservation is increasingly captured, co-opted and perverted by private interests.
This dynamic is on display in New Jersey, on a patch of public land called the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area, where loggers have begun cutting down old-growth forest a few miles from Kellogg’s exclusive Hudson Farm Club.
On one side of the contentious fight over Sparta Mountain WMA logging is a fierce local citizen environmental activist group, NJ Forest Watch, which advocates for strict protection of state forests. On the other, surprisingly, is a well-heeled green group that Kellogg helps fund, New Jersey Audubon, one of the oldest birdwatching groups in the nation.
So far, the NJ Forest Watch curators are losing the fight.
NJ Audubon, along with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), various state hunting associations, and wealthy local sport hunting promoters (including Kellogg), have cooperated with forestry interests under the covered in an insidious new management model that emphasizes the chainsaw of healthy mature forests in an effort to create an artificial habitat of young forests.
This management paradigm, which is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state partners through groups like the Young Forest Project, is based on the false belief that logging, done right, can mimic the natural disturbances that produce what ecologists call successional habitats, where shrubs and young trees predominate. Some birds, like the beloved golden-winged warbler, and other species sought after by hunters, like white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, thrive in young forest habitats.
Now, it’s possible that cutting down forests in an effort to create such a habitat could improve the odds of a tiny selection of target species, especially those that Audubon birders want to mark in their life lists. or those that hunters (like Kellogg) wish to kill. But proponents of this wildlife logging program tend to evade the fact, supported by many experts, that it wreaks havoc on vastly greater numbers of native species that depend on mature, unlogged forests.
Richard Enser, a conservation biologist formerly with the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program, told me in an email that “clearcutting destroys much more biodiverse habitat in exchange for species-depleted habitat.” He added: “We always hear about the few species that will benefit from clear-cutting with no mention of which species will be reduced or lost. And of course, from the point of view of biodiversity, taking into account ALL species (insects, fungi, etc.), the losses are considerable. If the clear-cut plans were subject to an environmental impact statement, in which a proper cost/benefit analysis was carried out, it would be very difficult to justify the actual costs.
“There is a lot of money to be made if you are a non-profit organization and support logging and hunting…”
According to Bill Wolfe, a former New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection planner, wildlife logging in the Sparta region has fragmented the forest with roads, disturbed soils and vegetation, reduced cover canopy, introduced invasive species and was “targeted not at dozens of rare and endangered inland bird species, but at one species, the Golden-winged Warbler, which requires brush/shrub habitat.
And, like everywhere, logging in Sparta releases vast amounts of carbon stored in unfragmented forests, carbon that won’t be reabsorbed for a century or more.
John Terborgh, one of the world’s top conservation biologists, observes that there is “no conservation reason to create more early successional habitat”. Cutting down trees to expand such habitat, he told me, “is a bogus argument, spun out as an excuse for more logging. But the argument might work with a gullible audience.
In other words, wildlife logging is based on junk science.
And yet, the false justifications work to their fullest at Sparta Mountain, home to 130 threatened, endangered and “special concern” species. Aided and abetted by state and federal agencies, loggers on this 3,500-acre parcel brandished their chainsaws in an area specifically preserved at taxpayer expense for the benefit of wildlife.
I visited Sparta last March with Silvia Solaun, a local resident turned forest advocate who is now the executive director of NJ Forest Watch. We walked through clearcuts of red oak trees, counting the tree rings of felled specimens. Solaun estimated some of the trees to be 150 years old.
“Old trees. It makes me sick,” she said. “And here is the New Jersey Audubon advocating for the logging of our state’s best, healthiest, oldest and most diverse forests.”
Curiously, two decades ago, NJ Audubon offered a radically different perspective on protecting state forest reserves.
“One of the most devastating causes of ecological degradation is fragmentation resulting from new developments and roads,” Eric Stiles, then director of NJ Audubon, wrote in a 2002 white paper. Wetlands have more predation, more parasitism and less vertebrate diversity than intact habitats.”
What explains the astonishing turnaround, such that today the group celebrates logging, roads and forest fragmentation under the aegis of young chainsaw forest management?
Solaun says the reason is the usual reason: money.
In recent years, NJ Audubon has received infusions of Young Forest funding from the United States Department of Agriculture amounting to $648,000. (As I pointed out in my book, This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption Are Ruining the American WestUSDA critics have long argued that it is an agency captured and subjugated by logging interests, and that its funding choices reflect this bias.)
“There’s a lot of money to be made if you’re a nonprofit and support logging and hunting,” Solaun told me.
New Jersey Audubon also received $330,000 from Kellogg, the Wall Street billionaire. Kellogg and his ilk have been candid about what is expected from this investment in conservation: decimating public forests so that authorized elites can have an easier time killing animals for sport. (I have contacted NJ Audubon for comment, but have not yet received a response.)
It’s all part of a broad toxification of the environmental movement, which has taken a regressive turn toward working with big business, wealthy donors and corporate-backed foundations. Green groups that embrace market-based initiatives, rather than advocating for sensible regulation and strict enforcement of environmental laws, are the ones that receive lavish funding.
Look, for example, at America’s wealthiest conservation nonprofit, the business-friendly Nature Conservancy, whose board of directors is made up mostly of corporate executives, Wall Street bankers and investment managers at 1%.
Sparta Mountain’s impermissible logging – with New Jersey Audubon as an accomplice – is a disgusting example of how this barony neoliberal influence is playing out, with powerful environmental groups in the United States now serving as green launderers for corporate interests with which they collaborate.
We hear nothing from them in the noble spirit of Benton MacKaye, nothing about a call for a retreat from profit.