Power line and pipeline rights-of-way present a conundrum for nature lovers. They are a scar across the landscape, especially when they rend a hilltop forest; but, at the same time, they provide habitat and foraging areas for birds and other animals and can host abundant plant life. Power lines, in particular, can be treacherous for large raptors. Both wires and the natural gas lines loom as potential dangers to humans, as well. But how many are willing to do without the energy they deliver to our homes and businesses? And many of us have hiked along these corridors which sometimes provide an easy route to the top of a hill along with easy viewing of any number of birds. They can be meadow or scrub-shrub habitat, as well as forest edge.
So, imagine the shock one can experience when he or she exits a forest onto a right-of-way (ROW) to find it has been stripped…yes, stripped…of all vegetation, right down to the soil and rock. This writer had that experience several years ago under the power line on Baldpate Mountain. It left me speechless and numb. It happened in May, and I could have cried. This had been the home of yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, catbirds and many others. In fall, various dogwoods and some of the biggest pokeweeds I’ve ever seen provided food for migrating birds. Now it looked war-ravaged. Every single shrub and small tree along the towers’ diagonal route across the mountain had been brush-hogged or bulldozed, their bones left lying there in twisted wreckage.
This year, in March, the same thing happened on the Texas Eastern pipeline right-of-way that runs across the Sourland Mountain Preserve in Somerset County. A posting on Jersey Birds told the same sort of sad tale. The writer told of trees along the edge of the woods, formerly a prime site for indigo buntings, being cut to the ground. The buntings, as many as fifteen pairs by his count, are an edge species that requires exactly the type of shrubby vegetation that was cut down. He spoke of the yellowthroats that frequented the cattails and rushes near the bottom of the ROW…now completely gone. They will most likely grow back, but will the birds come back? And what about the snakes, frogs and toads that would have been emerging from hibernation at that time? Gone. How has this summer been for the butterflies without the abundant grasses, milkweeds and asters? The final sentence in the posting tells it all: "This place was teeming with wildlife. It was quiet yesterday save for the din of spring peepers in the parking lot."
In 1994-95, Washington Crossing Audubon conducted a year-long biological survey of the Sourland Mountain Preserve. It was a natural wonderland in all seasons and the ROW was no exception. At the time, it was a patchwork of meadow and scrub-shrub habitat, rich in bird life and plants. Obviously, for the purpose of maintenance and safety, cutting is needed. But does it need to be scorched earth? Is it simply easier and cheaper to clear-cut rather than selectively cut? Why are they cutting into the woods? Why can’t they do it in late fall or winter? Do they need to clear all the way down to rock and bare soil?
The Board of Public Utilities recently came out with a new draft policy for power line rights-of-way and invited public comment until to August 8. It seems there should be a dialog opened for natural gas pipeline ROW maintenance, too, especially in light of the fact that Texas Eastern is adding another route along the base of Sourland Mountain. It’s time to ask questions and push for a more sensible maintenance regimen.
What you can do: Write to the address below regarding the Texas Eastern clear-cutting. If you know and love the Sourland Mountain Preserve you will find it easy to add your own observations and concerns to your letter. If you live in a municipality whose officials are fighting ROW overkill, lend them your support. Bridgewater Township recently dealt with a utility’s cutting of trees on private property and Hopewell Township has been trying to save recently-planted ornamental trees whose maximum height would never exceed 20 feet.