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Opinion: In League With the Environment

A new environmental organization is intent on making inroads with key legislators and appointed officials, and its timing couldn’t be better.

Protecting the environment has long been a priority in New Jersey, with governors and legislators of both parties responding to public concerns by enacting arguably the most stringent array of environmental laws in the nation.

But amid budget woes and recession, the Christie administration is characterizing a range of regulatory programs -- including a number of DEP rules -- as red tape in need of cutting for economic recovery to take hold. The new DEP Commissioner Bob Martin talks freely about the regulated community as “clients” while espousing cost-benefit analyses, holding listening sessions to determine the fate of the Highlands Council and its new regional master plan, and creating a new Assistant Commissioner for Economic Development. Criticism of environmental regulatory programs seems to be at an all-time high among legislators of both parties, with new legislation introduced on a regular basis to restrict or even repeal some of the state’s landmark environmental laws. And the remaining legislative stalwarts seem in danger of being outnumbered by those who would roll back standards and strike a very different balance between ecological and economic issues.

Clearly, the environmental community needs a white knight, especially with polls showing that a majority of New Jerseyans oppose relaxed environmental standards. And now it might have one, thanks to the establishment of a new organization intent on making environmental issues a top priority among legislators and key appointed officials.

Modeled after the successful League of Conservation Voter groups in many other states, the new organization represents a “coming of age” for the environmental movement. For the first time, New Jersey voters will have access to detailed and substantive information on the performance of their elected and appointed leaders on a series of critical environmental issues, so that they can decide for themselves whether their interests are truly being represented. Better yet, these issues will be identified and evaluated in a transparent public process guided by genuine experts who have devoted their professional and personal lives to making the Garden State a great place to live, work and raise a family.

And the timing couldn’t be better. While citizens remain supportive of a clean environment, what’s missing is the political movement and the concerted strategies to insure that public opinion is reflected in both legislative and executive actions. That political movement must be led by a strong, united non-profit community that is dedicated to defending that legacy against those who would have us believe that we can no longer afford to protect our environment. And that’s why it is high time for everyday citizens and voters -- armed with the information provided by this new organization -- to weigh in on the debate, and to play a more active role in electing state officials who appreciate that a healthy environment is one of the best, and perhaps the only, way to guarantee a healthy economy.

That’s not to say the organization has received a universally warm welcome, even in the environmental community. Surprisingly, Trenton-based environmental lobbying groups have questioned the need for this counter-offensive, assuring us that they are on the job, and that things are under control. One has to wonder, though, how anyone could think that things are looking up for the environment in New Jersey, or why these groups would resent the reinforcements that are on the way.

But the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters hasn’t been launched as a critique of current environmental lobbyists. Rather, it represents a clarion call for much-needed action. In fact, it’s likely to reinforce and broaden current environmental lobbying efforts, thus giving all environmentally conscious citizens more political clout. And if ever there was a time when the public needed a stronger and better organized voice to speak out in defense of environmental issues, that time is definitely now.

We’ve gotten too used to seeing “pay-to-play” politics determine the outcome of public policy debates, with the welfare of the average citizen secondary to the interests of the rich and the powerful seeking to maximize profits at the expense of our environment. The New Jersey League of Conservation Voters can help voters address this cynicism by empowering each one of us to make informed decisions as we cast our ballots and insure that the political process serves the interest of citizens in maintaining a clean and healthy environment.

The critics of the environmental movement have often dismissed environmental advocates and activists as pie-in-the-sky tree-huggers. So mark this year on your calendars as the year in which the environmental movement graduated to become a political force to be reckoned with, and kudos to the broad array of environmental leaders who have established the NJLCV as a much-needed mechanism to take the struggle for a healthy environment for all New Jerseyans to the next level. It’s quite literally a breath of fresh air for all of us who value our natural resources -- and who want to ensure that future generations can enjoy clean water, fresh air, and a superior quality of life as well.

Michael Catania is a former Deputy Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection who served in that position under two governors and three commissioners. He is also the author of many of New Jersey’s landmark environmental laws, and is currently President of Conservation Resources, a non-profit conservation intermediary organization.

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