Profile: Jason Howell, Protecting the Pinelands Against All Comers

The stewardship coordinator for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance doesn’t rule out ‘direct action’ for protecting this preserve

Howell’s family can trace its Pinelands roots back to the 1730s. His great grandfather, Fountain Gale, was a game warden in Atlantic County. His stone can be seen behind Howell.
Name: Jason Howell

Position: Stewardship coordinator, Pinelands Preservation Alliance, since summer 2015. The PPA is an environmental nonprofit.

What he does: Organizes volunteers to work for conservation in Pinelands

Education: Liberal arts degree from Atlantic Cape Community College, 2005-06

Why he’s in the news: He’s a leading advocate for the restriction of off-road vehicle access in the Pinelands, and a vigorous opponent of a proposed natural-gas pipeline that would run through part of the area. Both are hot-button issues that are expected to be decided on by the Pinelands Commission in the next couple of months.

Where you can find him: At meetings of the Pinelands Commission, the state body charged with protection of the 1-million-acre area. Or out in the woods, coordinating the efforts of volunteers who monitor the presence of off-road vehicles, especially in areas that are home to imperiled plants and animals.

What drives him: Howell, a resident of Port Republic on the Mullica River in Atlantic County, has been in and around the Pinelands for all of his 31 years, and his family can trace its Pinelands roots back to the 1730s. His great-great-great grandfather, Simeon Gale, froze to death in a Pinelands blizzard in the 1820s. His great grandfather, Fountain Gale, was a game warden in Atlantic County, and is buried outside the Old Weymouth United Methodist Church that Howell attended when he was a boy.

Howell believes his homeland faces its biggest-ever threats, both from off-road drivers in increasingly powerful vehicles, and from the planned pipeline that he says would create a dangerous precedent for future development of the area.

What he says: “I don’t exist without this place. I’m planning for this place not just for its own sake but also for my own existence. If somebody was trying to put a bulldozer through your back yard, pretty much anyone would take great umbrage to that action, and I view this pipeline and these off-road vehicles in very much the same way.”

How does he plan to advance those causes? In part, by urging commission members to accept a new plan that would make it easier for park police to enforce laws restricting vehicle use of Wharton State Forest, and by lobbying hard against the pipeline. Although the panel seems likely to approve the plan that identifies in detail where off-road vehicles can and cannot legally drive in the forest, it looks as if he’s going to lose the battle over the pipeline.

Why’s that? Simply because the commission appears to have more pipeline supporters than opponents following a tied vote on the question the last time it came up in 2014, and Gov. Chris Christie’s replacement of two anti-pipeline commissioners since then.

If the pipeline gets the go-ahead from the commission, is that the end of the argument? Absolutely not, Howell says, promising that legal and direct action would follow any approval of the pipeline. “Even if this pipeline does get approved, it’s not the end of the road. We will sue again. Even if they approve it, it doesn’t mean this pipeline is getting built.”

Direct action? Doesn’t that mean people chaining themselves to trees and so on? Well, maybe. “People I have talked to are very willing to get involved in a direct-action campaign of putting themselves in the way of the construction crews,” he said. “I think it’s time to think about taking different tactics if the ones we’re using aren’t working.”

Does that make him an eco-warrior? He calls himself an environmental activist, and pursues the cause in addition to his duties at the PPA. “I think it’s important to network with activists. In my free time I’m going to help organize a campaign that could put bodies in the way of the pipeline,” he said.

What about the off-road vehicle issue? Isn’t that getting a bit old now? It will never be old while four-wheel-drive trucks, jeeps and ATVs are tearing up parts of the Pinelands that contain endangered plants and animals, Howell says, arguing that the problem has gotten worse with the availability of bigger vehicles that can go to places that were previously unreachable except on foot. “The problem is power corrupts, and when you are in a very powerful vehicle it becomes much too easy to say; ‘oh look at the pond; I bet we could get through that pond,’” he said.

Is the monitoring of sensitive sites going to make much difference given the vast area of the Pinelands and the scarcity of park police? Probably not, he says, without the addition of bollards, gates, fences, and other barriers that stop drivers entering those areas. “If we just monitor it, there’s nobody there 80-90 percent of the time, so without a physical blockade, it becomes too easy for people to just go ahead and just tear it up.”

Is there any new threat to the Pinelands? Yes, and Howell says it might come from the Trump administration whose Interior Secretary has a representative on the Pinelands Commission. With the administration’s policies of encouraging oil and gas development, that makes it more likely the commission will vote — likely in March — to allow construction of the line that would supply natural gas to a power plant in Cape May County. The previous Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, was opposed to the pipeline so her representative voted against it but that may change with the new administration, Howell says.

Could the new administration also influence the long-running fight over off-road vehicles? Howell fears President Donald Trump’s anti-regulation policies will encourage off-road drivers to ignore efforts to restrict their access to the Pinelands. “I’m sure from my experience that most of them are Trump fans,” he said. “I don’t think Trump would have any problem with what these guys are doing to the Pinelands.”

So what does he do in his spare time? He works to defend the Pinelands; that is, more of the above.

You mean he’s never been out of the Pinelands or done anything else with his life? Before joining the PPA, he went to Jordan in 2015 as part of a film crew that made a documentary about life in a camp for Syrian refugees. The project was initially self-financed but later got funding from Jon Stewart’s production company and from crowd-funding.

And what does he say about his job at the Pinelands Preservation Alliance? “My personal mission is to save the Pinelands, and I have thought how great it would be to get a job with the only organization whose sole purpose it is to save the Pinelands.”