Opinion: The Myth of a Divided Environmental Community

Michael Catania | June 29, 2011 | Opinion
How members of the Statehouse press have turned a difference of opinion into a schism

To read recent press accounts, you would think that New Jersey’s environmental community is a victim of rampant factionalism and almost daily and irrevocable policy rifts. Article after article discusses the so-called schism, which a naive media would have us believe divides environmental advocates into several hostile and thus ineffectual camps — severely crippling the collective influence of the entire environmental movement in Trenton. These knowing pundits remind us that the beneficiary of all of this strife is none other than Gov. Chris Christie, who is, of course, given full credit for orchestrating this schism to his advantage in his never-ending quest to roll back environmental standards.

The problem with this smug scenario is that it is without any basis in fact (except for the part about the governor’s quest). Like most folks in Trenton, the Statehouse press finds it impossible to believe that the city is not the center of the political universe, and that anything that is not a fixture in Trenton cannot possibly be important.

That is exactly why what passes for the fourth estate these days in the Statehouse assumes that the environmental movement consists exclusively of Jeff Tittle of the Sierra Club and David Pringle of the NJ Environmental Federation (with the possible exception of Dena Mottola of Environment NJ, whose existence is sometimes grudgingly acknowledged, but only when the press needs someone to quote about the latest alleged riff between Jeff and Dave).

But the fact of the matter is that New Jersey’s environmental community is an incredibly diverse and effective assemblage of hundreds of organizations, including land trusts, watershed associations, riverkeepers, regional land use advocates, local community groups, and many others. The actual movement encompasses everything from the largest international environmental and conservation organizations, which maintain offices and run programs in the Garden State, to a full array of experienced and well-staffed statewide and regional environmental organizations, down to smaller groups and activists who operate only within a particular part of the state, in just a single town or on a single issue.

These groups are, in fact, incredibly cohesive on policy matters — probably much more so than most communities. And when they come together on an important issue, such as open space funding, they have been tremendously effective. One example of this impressive track record is the fact that the statewide voting public of New Jersey has approved Green Acres ballot questions since 1961, dedicating more than $3 billion toward open space, farmland and historic preservation. And these victories were achieved by a united environmental community, without, I might add, (and sometimes despite) help from their colleagues in Trenton.

This diverse community has created a number of sophisticated mechanisms for reaching consensus on policy matters. Far from being crippled by schisms, it has demonstrated an ability to work collectively, as well as in coalition with groups from other sectors, including the farming community; hunting, fishing and other sportsmen’s groups; the historic preservation community; the arts community; and even the corporate community. But apparently the current crop of young Statehouse reporters has never heard of such coalitions as the Stockton Alliance, the Coalition for Conservation, the Environmental Summit, the Environmental Collegium, the Watershed Institute, or more recently, the Keep It Green Coalition, or the League of Conservation Voters.

Nor do they realize that there are dozens of major enviros — from groups like NJ Audubon, Baykeeper, The Trust for Public Land, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC), the Highlands Coalition, and the NJ Conservation Foundation (to name just a few) — who are carefully planning the counteroffensive to push back against the governor and his allies in the legislature. And that lack of insight misses the mark, since this is what the real story on the environmental community is all about.

Instead, and rather sadly, the press sees only two organizations that represent the entire environmental community, and has convinced itself that the story is all about whether Jeff and Dave are even on speaking terms.

To be sure, the governor has gotten an awful lot of mileage out of the fact that the NJ Environmental Federation somehow deluded itself into endorsing him. And it has been downright embarrassing to watch Dave Pringle twist himself into a pretzel during the past 18 months trying desperately to find a way to say something positive and upbeat about the governor’s latest assault on New Jersey’s environmental regulatory infrastructure.

This is not to say that the “Trenton groups,” as they are known to the rest of the environmental community, are not important players, that they do not play a critical role communicating to legislators what many other groups feel on important issues, or that they have never disagreed with the larger environmental community. But they are only two groups out of hundreds of environmental organizations, and the much publicized yet rare differences of opinion they have had with each other, or with the larger environmental community, may well be great material for the Trenton version of a soap opera, but these differences are not terribly relevant in the larger picture.

Clearly, Jeff Tittle, as a veteran Trenton insider with a gift for reducing a complex green issue to a soundbite that is irresistible to an inexperienced and understaffed press, has indeed established himself as the leading spokesman for the loyal environmental opposition, especially as the Democratic leadership in both houses has all but willingly caved in to the Christie juggernaut. And to give Jeff and the Sierra Club their due, they have clearly taken their activism to the next level, relentlessly pounding the administration and the legislative leadership, never giving an inch of ground without a fight. They have also been smart enough to set aside whatever minor differences they may have had with their colleagues outside of Trenton to position themselves to play a major role in whatever comes next. So whatever their rare differences of opinion may have been in the past, it seems clear that the Sierra Club and the larger environmental community will be playing nicely together in the future.

And despite the gift that both an unwitting press and the now-humiliated Federation have bestowed on the governor, that honeymoon is now definitely over, and it is hard to see how it really matters whether Dave Pringle agrees or disagrees with anyone for the immediate future.
So for my money, there never was a schism, just hundreds of united enviros on one side and Dave Pringle all by his lonesome on the other. And the Federation has left itself no way out of the corner it has painted itself into other than to attack the governor they once embraced, in the hopes of slowly working their way back into the fold. And poor Dave is now of little use to a governor who appears determined to continue his assault on the environmental progress we have made during the past 40 some years.

Fortunately, however, New Jersey’s “rebel” environmental community is alive and well, newly energized by a governor who has mowed through teachers and public employees and now targets the environmental community as his next whipping boy. But both the governor and the press will find that this community has a not-so-secret ally — the people of New Jersey, who actually do care about clean water, clean air, and the fact that every last inch of the Garden State will be completely built-out during their lifetimes. So I would not count the rebels out just yet. I suggest that you stay tuned to see if the current running of “The Empire Strikes” back is inevitably followed by the “Return of the Jedi”, as we come full circle and the environmental community regroups and reasserts itself on behalf of the public in the crucial battle for the quality of the environment we will bequeath to our children.