By Jaimie Julia Winters
At 7 a.m. Tuesday, Jonathan Grupper of the Friends of the Alfonzo F. Bonsal Preserve stood his ground at the nature preserve, preventing workers from cutting down trees. An hour later, he was escorted off the property by Clifton police as chainsaws were started up and century-old tree limbs began to crash to earth below.
The day prior, Grupper had been alerted that the New Jersey District Water Supply Commission had begun clearing trees along its easement, which runs through the preserve. Grupper counted 35 felled trees Monday, which he was told would be the commission’s limit. But he later learned that the tree company would be back the next day to take down 35 more.
The week before, Grupper had reached out to Tim Eustace, the commission’s executive director, to set up a meeting on the scope of the tree-clearing plan two years in the making, which the commission contended was needed due to root damage and liability and security issues.
In the email obtained by Montclair Local Eustace replied, “There are 35 trees in question and we would be happy to go over the plans with you. There are no plans to clear cut anything, just some maintenance to assure both you and the commission with future success. I look forward to [the] meeting.”
But instead, Grupper, who lives along the preserve, woke to the sound of chainsaws ripping through the air Monday.
“We understand there’s a need to maintain the pipeline,” he said. “But it is not a mandate to bulldoze a nature reserve.”
Two years ago, the Water Supply Commission directed a $550,940 tree-cutting project that includes hewing flora not only in the preserve in Montclair, but also throughout its miles-long system that supplies over 100 million gallons of water daily to nearly 3 million people, in areas including the Montclair Country Club and parts of Wanaque, Pompton Lakes, Pequannock, Wayne, Little Falls, Clifton and Belleville.
At noon Tuesday, Eustace met Grupper and Montclair First Ward Councilman William Hurlock on the preserve. But it was a little too late, said Grupper, as 70 trees were stacked up. Because the easement hugs the Third River, which runs through Bonsal, many that were removed were along the river line.
“They strayed beyond the easement and they cut trees that helped with the erosion near the river,” Grupper said. “We were told the tree company was told to use their discretion on how many trees to cut down. The commission did not allow for the proper consideration to the preserve, the town or the friends. Our input should have been part of this plan.”
Montclair has owned the preserve since the 1970s, when a citizens’ group lobbied to save the woodland from development. The Bonsal Preserve was named after a local resident whose family’s contribution augmented Green Acres funding for the purchase of the site.
“My initial estimate of trees to cut was 35. The trees cut in the area include our property and Bonsal, so the number can be argued, but why? We are responsible citizens and understand that they wanted no trees cut. However, water is a vital resource. This was done carefully. Our forester selected the trees to protect the line. I know that Mr. Grupper wanted a drawing. I never had one and said I would try to see if we had one. We did not,” Eustace told Montclair Local.
Put on hold
Back in May, the tree clearing in Bonsal had been put on hold, according to both the state and the tree company retained by the water commission. A DEP spokesman said at the time that the water commission had not filed the required easement paperwork with department.
Because of the preserve’s Green Acres funding and its wildlife habitat status, the DEP and the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Department should have been notified of the project by the water commission.
At the time, commission spokesman William Maer said his agency was “in conversations with DEP, and we anticipate this project to proceed in the near future.”
However, a DEP representative said Tuesday that the department had no pending permits, nor had it issued any, for the tree-clearing project by the water commission at Bonsal. She said she was looking into the Green Acres status of the preserve.
“The purpose of permits is to include the community in the process,” said Grupper. “Getting permits after the process is not public notification.”
Reason for clearing
In a May 2015 report commissioned by the water commission over concerns of tree root damage to its aqueduct systems, consulting firm Arcadis listed root impact as most concerning, but other issues included access to the system, liability due to falling trees or limbs and wildfires and security issues as the trees could conceal dangerous activities.
“Excess vegetation provides cover for vandals or terrorists targeting utilities,” the report read.
The report points to the recommendations for utility pipelines by the Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance.
“Although a review of existing literature failed to identify industry standards specifically for aqueduct pipelines, the Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance (PIPA, 2010) recommends maintaining the entire ROW [right-of-way] free of trees,” the report stated.
27 trees lost earlier
The preserve is coming off another tree clearing project. Clifton began felling about 27 trees on the 21-acre preserve in early May. The year-long Clifton project entailed replacing and relocating an 80-year-old sewer line that runs under the property and services Clifton residences that border the preserve.
While the Clifton municipal government provided the Friends of the Preserve with regular updates, downgraded the number of trees it needed to take down and plans on replacing the trees, the water commission has been mostly mute on its project, said Grupper.
Last year, the group was taken on a preserve walk-through with a commission representative who pointed to about two dozen trees that may have to be felled, Grupper said. But unlike Clifton, which issued a report with the number of trees and the locations of the trees that were slated for razing, the commission never forwarded a report to the town, which is why Grupper emailed Eustace last week.
Eustace said the commission will be looking into a plan for planting native plants along the stream, to prevent further invasive growth, which he said is currently extensive.