If you have traveled the southern portions of the Garden State Parkway at all in the last few years, you will no doubt have noticed the extensive tree-clearing and road-widening underway. Under the state's no-net-loss law, the agency overseeing the project needs to replace the trees being cleared or contribute to a tree-planting fund. However, it looks like the Turnpike Authority is trying to avoid that obligation by reclassifying the tree-clearing from mile 30 to mile 64.5 as routine maintenance rather than preparation for construction.
Officials from the Turnpike Authority say they have lived up to their “no net loss” obligations and plan to continue doing so. But they believe the tree-cutting project may be eligible for exemption since the state’s Division of Parks and Forestry has said the cut trees could classify as a firebreak for the pinelands.The plan originally submitted described the work as minor, in contrast to the clearcutting evident along the Parkway now.
The authority has submitted a plan to the state Department of Environmental Protection to mitigate the loss of wetlands and trees, although it did so only after the clearing work had begun, a breach of etiquette if not of the regulatory process....
In recent months, the Turnpike Authority has repeatedly said the clearing is not part of the $900 million parkway widening project that, when completed, will widen the roadway between mileposts 80 in Toms River and 30 in Somers Point, but rather a maintenance program designed to keep drivers safe and the roadway clear of debris.
Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the Turnpike Authority, told The Press in February that “originally, this was billed as clear zone maintenance for this entire stretch and, also, the northern part was going to be worked into the removal for the widening project. But we’re still in the planning process for the next phase of the widening, and any actual work is so far away that some of the trees will probably have started to grow back by the time work begins on the widening.”
On March 17, Kropp told The Press that the Turnpike Authority submitted a reforestation or payment plan in February for the section of the project that stretches between mileposts 30 and 64.5, but that the plan still had not been reviewed at that time.
The size of the undertaking is reflected in both the $6 million price tag to clear the trees and in the visual impact of the razed oak, maple, cedar and pine trees. The scene has become familiar to motorists: heavy machinery, specially fitted timber-cutting machines and dump trucks picking their way through long swaths of denuded ground and fallen timber. Piles of woodchips tower more than 20 feet high.
Yet despite the scope of the project, the authority’s environmental impact study, submitted in 2006, describes the work as relatively minor.
“The proposed project will require minor disturbances of vegetated areas. ... In total, 155.58 acres of existing vegetated area will be cleared, of which 88.84 acres will be converted to paved area,” the report reads.
The report states that a majority of the permanent impact will be to the plant and animal habitat in the project area, including those of threatened and endangered species, such as bald eagles, ospreys and Pine Barrens tree frogs. But it states that the loss of habitat is not expected to affect the ability of existing species to successfully breed, forage and hibernate because there is plenty of available habitat space nearby.