BY ERIKA NORTONSPARTA — Forestry activities at two different sites on the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area were set to begin this week, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. The work is set to start on or about Feb. 14 and end before April, but may resume after Nov. 15. According to the DEP, the two areas within the Sparta Mountain area slated for work are about 18.5 acres in Stand 18 and about 17 acres in Stand 33.Stand 18 area will be managed to restore young oak-hickory forest by opening the canopy to allow for the growth of young oak and hickory trees, blackberries, sedges, and a variety of other shrubs and sapling species — habitat characteristics the DEP says are currently underrepresented within the region. The goal of the work is to create habitat for more than 60 different bird species, including the endangered Golden-winged Warbler.This project area is on the north side of the east-west power line that bisects the management area, roughly a quarter mile southeast of Beaver Lake within Hardyston Township.Stand 33 will be managed to accelerate the development of old growth forest characteristics through a process known as “gap-phase replacement.” According to the DEP, “gap-phase replacement” mimics the natural processes of an old-growth forest, making small canopy gaps normally created by wildfires or storms to try and stimulate growth of trees of all ages. The project site is located in the far northeastern section of property roughly 500 feet west of Tamarack Lake in Hardyston Township. BacklashThe Sparta Mountain plan, created by the DEP in conjunction with the New Jersey Audubon Society, was released in December 2015, with a stated goal of maintaining “ecosystem health, diversity and integrity” by removing trees to create a “greater balance among the stages of forest succession” over the next 10 years. The site encompasses a total 3,400-acre swath of public land within the townships of Sparta, Ogdensburg, and Hardyston in Sussex County and Jefferson Township in Morris County.Over the 10 years, 630 acres will see some type of cutting: 322 acres will be managed to accelerate old-growth characteristics (single-tree selection cutting), 100 acres will see shelterwood cutting and 208 acres will be managed for young forest characteristics (modified tree seed cutting).The plan sparked a tempestuous dispute among residents and other environmental groups questioning the intent of the plan, accusing the state of creating a commercial logging operation to "clear-cut” the forest. The New Jersey Sierra Club, a vocal opponent of the plan, restated their concerns about the plan.“The DEP is using the Golden Warbler habitat as a rationalization to clear-cut an environmentally sensitive forest in the Highlands,” Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club Jeff Tittel said in a statement. “All along they have looked the other way at all the ecologically important features of this site,” he continued. “They do not recognize that this area is a vital greenway in the Highlands region that helps protect the clean drinking water for 6 million people.”“This plan is a horrible sell-out to our open space for private logging companies and must be stopped,” he concluded. “We must continue the public outcry against this plan and tell DEP these lands belong to all of us, not commercial loggers.”The plan was officially completed and approved by the DEP in March 2017.