For NJ Environmentalists, A Disunited Front

Tom Johnson | June 1, 2010
Can a newly revived League of Conservation Voters help heal the rifts in NJ's divided—
and divisive—green community so it can speak with a single voice?

On a dreary day in March, a couple of prominent environmentalists were shaking their heads as the Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee geared up for a vote on a bill that would make it harder for New Jersey to exceed federal standards on various pollution laws.

“Kind of reminds me of the days of the Whitman administration,” muttered Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, sitting in the front row of a committee room in the Statehouse Annex, sensing the vote was not going their way.

“No, it’s worse,” replied Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, a couple of seats away. “This time they are more organized than us.”

It has been quite a while since New Jersey’s environmental community has found itself so much on the defensive, opposing efforts to cut clean energy funding and a move to freeze and undo environmental regulations. And at a time when they could benefit from speaking with one voice, they find themselves sometimes even at odds with one another.

Bad Blood

Part of the bad blood stems back to last year when Tittel and Dave Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, both lobbied hard against a proposed open space bond issue, pushed by most other green groups, such as New Jersey Conservation Foundation, as it made its way through the legislature. They argued instead for a stable source of funding for preserving land, a cause they lost. In the fall, Pringle’s group was neutral on the bond issue, while the Sierra Club gave it a lukewarm endorsement.

Credit: NJLCV
The divide widened further in the gubernatorial election. The Sierra Club endorsed independent Chris Daggett (full disclosure: the author served as Daggett’s press secretary); the federation endorsed Republican Chris Christie; and Environment New Jersey sat the election out.

In a sign that other conservation organizations are tired of having Tittel, a veritable sound-byte machine for the Statehouse press, and Pringle, a key figure in the state’s largest environmental group, serve as the public face of New Jersey’s environmental community, they have banded together to form a revived League of Conservation Voters.

“We look forward to engaging with and supporting the efforts of all environmental organizations in New Jersey,” said Eric Stiles, vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society. “NJLCV will be drawing on the expertise of other environmentalists throughout the state for advice in establishing the organization’s agenda and selecting what issues merit placement on the scorecard (which will be used to rate government officials). ”

Unimpressed Environmentalist

Tittel was not impressed. On the day when the new organization was announced, he put out a statement: “I do not understand why all these groups need to form another group to do the work they should all be doing. While they are trying to form another group, the Sierra Club is leading the fight against offshore drilling, Christie’s Clean Energy Budget Cuts, the Governor’s weakening of environmental protections, the Linden Coal Plant, Power lines through the Highlands, etc.”

Pringle declined to comment.

But Dillingham, a member of the new group, argued the environmental community needs to connect more strongly with its grass roots to be more effective. Other organizations that have joined the group, include a who’s who of environmental organization: the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, the Trust for Public Land, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and NJ Highlands Coalition, among others.

Michael Catania, executive director of Conservation Resources, Inc., said it is time for other environmental organizations to speak for themselves in setting the environmental agenda because the current groups haven’t really done well in the past.

“Look at their record in the fall campaign,’’ said Catania, a former deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection and director of the New Jersey Nature Conservancy “One sat it out; one backed an independent who got 6 percent of the vote; and one albeit picked the right horse, but then had a falling out with them within weeks of the Governor’s inauguration.’’

The last was a reference to a dispute between the federation and Christie administration over a decision by the state Board of Public Utilities to sell an undeveloped tract of land in South Jersey to a developer even though the state had sought to purchase the property, a haven for several endangered species, on at least four occasions (see Developers Gain Last Large Tract of Pristine Land Through State Sale).

On the other hand, Tittel has often been critical of the other green groups whose top priority is land preservation for not standing up to this and other administrations over what he believes are bad environmental policies for fear of jeopardizing the awarding of preservation grants from government agencies.

Catania disputed that assertion. “I never found an occasion when they pulled their punches—even if they receive grants,” he said.

More recently, environmental groups have found themselves at odds, at times, over issues such as offshore wind farms and putting megascale solar projects on prime agricultural land. But much of the antipathy seems to be personal. “It’s kind of become more about them than the policies,” Catania said.

The environmental spat is a source of wonderment to business lobbyists. “If things keep going like this, pretty soon we will have more environmental groups in New Jersey than manufacturing jobs,’’ said Hal Bozarth, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Chemistry Industry Council, which is frequently at odds with the environmental community.