Don’t Let ‘Lame Duck’ Turn To ‘Tough Turkey’

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by Michele S. Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

The phrase “lame duck” doesn’t usually evoke great deeds and transformational events. Politically, lame duck can mean chaos in the state Legislature, something like a concert with everything from Mussorgsky’s frenzied “Night on Bald Mountain” to Tchaikovsky’s serene “Swan Lake.”

“Lame duck” is the period between a November election and the seating of a newly elected Legislature the following January.  It’s the last chance to pass bills that are nearly through the legislative process.  In fact, bills not passed during lame duck have to be re-introduced by the new Legislature and start all over again. Lame duck can also be a time to rush through some bad bills, leaving opponents little time to organize against them.

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Right now, New Jersey’s lame duck is getting under way with several worthy bills that should be passed, and a potential turkey that should be stopped.
One great bill is the proposed Forest Stewardship bill (A-3239), sponsored by Assemblyman John McKeon, which would encourage sustainable management of private forest lands.   Most of New Jersey’s forests are seriously degraded; they face an onslaught of pests, invasive species, unsustainable logging practices and overabundant deer.

Under current law, New Jersey landowners can qualify for reduced property tax assessments if they produce a certain level of income from harvesting trees.  Across New Jersey, this has spurred poor forestry practices. The Forest Stewardship bill would allow landowners to qualify for the same lower tax assessments if they implement professionally prepared forest stewardship plans aimed at enhancing the natural resource value of the woodlands.

Another lame duck bill, the “ORV Bill” (A-823/S-2055), is sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora and Senator Robert Gordon. It would require all off-road vehicles (ORVs) to be registered and tagged, and impose stiff penalties for illegal riding on public lands. The ORV bill would create a real deterrent to illegal riding, and generate revenue to support enforcement, rider education and safety programs, and repairing damage to open space.

New Jersey’s open lands face substantial threats from off-road vehicles. Though they are illegal on public, preserved land, you would be hard-pressed to find a piece of New Jersey that hasn’t been damaged in some way by ORV use.

ORVs destroy vegetation, kill and injure wildlife, create serious soil erosion problems, degrade air and water quality, produce noise pollution (harmful to wildlife and a nuisance to humans), cut wildlife off from feeding or breeding grounds, cause erosion and exacerbate the problem of invasive species. Even though there are many responsible ORV riders who respect the environment, there are far too many who don’t.  The ORV bill is a solid first step for getting the protection of our conservation lands back on track.

Now for the turkey: A “builders bill” that would rewrite the State Planning Act for the worse. Although this draft legislation, written by builders and the development community, has not yet been introduced, lame duck could be the perfect time to slip it through. It would give the State Planning Commission the power to override local governments, every state agency and all regional planning bodies, including the NJ Pinelands Commission and Highlands Council.

State agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection, currently voting members of the State Planning Commission, would be reduced to advisors. If this turkey of a bill gets introduced in lame duck, our legislators and governor should shoot it down.

Once lame duck gets under way, just a few votes could make a major difference for forests and open spaces struggling to survive in this state we’re in.  Please call your state Senators and Assembly members today and ask them to push for final votes to get A-3239 and A-823/S2055 passed now.  To find your legislators, go to http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/legsearch.asp, or call (800) 792-8630.

And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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