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Karen Heller: In clear-cutting plan, losing more than unsafe trees

BULL'S ISLAND, DELAWARE TOWNSHIP, N.J. - This idyllic, verdant swath in the Delaware River north of Stockton offers a beloved recreation area, bird sanctuary, and a longtime campsite. According to one eminent ecologist, it's "the most ecologically significant of any of the Delaware River islands."

BULL'S ISLAND, DELAWARE TOWNSHIP, N.J. - This idyllic, verdant swath in the Delaware River north of Stockton offers a beloved recreation area, bird sanctuary, and a longtime campsite. According to one eminent ecologist, it's "the most ecologically significant of any of the Delaware River islands."

Now, the nature preserve has become a significant battleground between environmental groups and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In June 2011, a giant sycamore fell, killed camper William Arias, and seriously injured his wife. A tragedy. Arias' two children and a cousin were physically unharmed.

The New Jersey DEP responded immediately, closing the campsite, removing picnic tables, and prohibiting access to the north side of the 24-acre nature preserve. The DEP also began bulldozing parts of the area, pushing debris into the river, which supplies 100 million gallons daily of drinking water to Jersey customers.

DEP hired Bartlett Tree Experts to do a risk inventory. The report, completed in July 2011, surveyed 180 trees and recommended removing 56, including nine giant sycamores that provide a high, riparian canopy for the cerulean warbler and a subspecies of the yellow-throated warbler, both rare.

The DEP went further, and decided, according to one report, that "we are proceeding with removing all vegetative material in the upper river section of Bull's Island." That includes more than 200 trees, among them a 145-foot sycamore. Arborists describe the tree as "amazing," requiring neither removal nor pruning. The agency has yet to submit a formal application to the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission, which must approve all such work. However, the commission has already received 80 e-mails expressing concern about DEP's proposal.

Mature, towering trees create a natural barrier for the island in an area already prone to flooding. No mature trees means more flooding, further eroding this island and increasing silt in the river.

"This sets a dangerous precedent as to how the state manages other public lands," says John Cecil, N.J. Audubon's vice president for stewardship. "We can't expect DEP to clear land every time a tree falls. This is a dangerous precedent when a tragedy occurs. And it really compromises the island from an erosion point of view."

Ecologist Emile DeVito, the N.J. Conservation Foundation's manager of science and stewardship, wrote DEP that "clear-cut restoration in any of the relatively flat portion of the floodplain forest at Bull's Island will almost certainly fail." He describes the island as "one of the few places left anywhere in New Jersey where a mature forest is expressing old-growth ecological attributes," including species "that are the most tolerant of deep flooding."

Bill Wolfe guides me on a tour. We hike the rocks of the northern perimeter, happening upon an idle bulldozer, perhaps the one that was plowing Bull's Island without an application until Wolfe, a tenacious environmental activist and blogger, alerted the proper authorities.

Wolfe works for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. He's been on a crusade to save the island, which he regularly visits, ever since he discovered the plan to "denude the northern portion," garnering support from the local Audubon Society and Sierra Club, the Conservancy Foundation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He discovered the agency's proposal to clear-cut the northern tip after filing for documents under the state's Open Public Records Act. Wolfe is utterly familiar with the state DEP, having served as the last administration's policy director and being cited as the "conscience of the agency."

It's safe to say that current DEP officials don't feel that way about him. Spokesman Larry Ragonese never mentions Wolfe by name, as though he were the Voldemort of environmental activists, preferring instead to refer to "certain people perpetuating that myth that we're clear-cutting the forest, that we're overreacting."

Ragonese tells me "it's a matter of the trees being dangerous; the root systems are bad. This incident that occurred brought to our attention an issue we did not know existed. If someone were to walk in the park and get hurt by a tree, I don't know how we would be able to look them in the eye." True, two more sycamores have fallen, though in forest area and toward the river. "If we don't take these trees down now, they're going to come down and fall," he says.

Wolfe decries this tactic as fearmongering, the "stealth war on killer trees."

Camping is now permanently prohibited, a DEP move on which there is general accord. Keeping the northern tip closed indefinitely, now more than a year after Arias' horrific death, to island visitors has been met with less consensus. There still doesn't seem to be a defined restoration plan. At least not one the public knows about.

The DEP, after all the publicity and protests, remains unclear on how many trees will be removed. Fourteen months after the tragedy, Bull's Island rests in limbo. Ragonese can't say how many trees will be removed. "Whether it's 56 or 180 or 200 trees that will be removed, when it gets down to the final numbers, we'll resort to those numbers," he says. Of Bartlett's July 2011 survey, he says: "That's the initial report. It could be 130 trees."

In a separate action, Wolfe also discovered that the N.J. Water Supply Authority, without obtaining a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, was dredging the area around the island, pushing sediment and storm debris into the river and compromising the drinking supply. His protest stopped that action, too.

The DEP's Ragonese isn't surprised about the reaction to removing the trees. "People in New Jersey deeply care about nature and green spaces, possibly more than the other 49 states combined," he tells me. "I think it's because we're the most densely populated state."

Trees fall. They fall all the time in forests, in parks, in yards. Last week, one fell on my street. What happened to William Arias was horrible. A lawsuit against the state is pending.

DEP should be vigilant in removing trees that pose risk. But you don't remove all mature vegetation, especially after tree experts recommended cutting 56, not more than 200. Why conduct a survey if authorities are going to ignore the experts' findings?

To remove all the trees on Bull's Island's northern tip is to make it less of a park, a bird sanctuary, or a natural wonder. As multiple experts point out, and have argued to DEP, removing all those trees puts the park at serious risk, of sullying the Delaware River, of gradually making the place not much of an island at all.

Then, of course, all you would have is Bull.

at 215-854-2586 or, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.