Top environmental organizations in the state yesterday pressed Gov. Phil Murphy to overhaul the Pinelands Commission, an agency they say fell short in protecting the preserve the past eight years.
The groups, in a rare show of solidarity, called on the governor to recast the commission, where many holdovers from the administration of former Gov. Chris Christie, all serving expired terms, remain in place 10 months after Murphy took office.
The 1-million-acre preserve, the largest intact coastal ecosystem between New Hampshire and Virginia, is widely viewed as a national treasure by conservationists. Home to rare plants and species found nowhere else, trillions of gallons of pristine water lie underneath the Pinelands.
Its future, however, has come under scrutiny as decisions have undermined protections to preserve the forests and habitat there, environmentalists say. Critics, including four former governors, have railed about proposed gas pipelines through core preservation areas.
“Inherently, the Pinelands are New Jersey’s wilderness,’’ said Alison Mitchell, policy director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “They are still a wild place.’’
Whittling away at preserve
Recent decisions by the commission are not only whittling away at the edges of the Pinelands, but also at its core, according to Mitchell.
“We call on Gov. Murphy to fix and depoliticize the Pinelands Commission now,’’ said Jaclyn Rhoads, assistant executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “Swift action is crucial; as long as the current leadership continues, we will see further poor decision making, assaults on rational, open processes, and violations of the Comprehensive Management Plan.’’ (The plan details where and what developments are suitable for the Pinelands.)
The governor appoints seven of the 15 members on the commission; seven others are named by county freeholders from within the Pinelands region. One is a federal appointment by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
Murphy has yet to make any Pinelands Commission appointments. Some of the holdover gubernatorial appointments are backed by environmentalists, although a few are looking to get off the commission after serving many years.
Rhoads said the groups have submitted names to the governor’s office, suggesting potential nominees. Murphy responded to the recommendations, saying his team is working on the issue, according to Rhoads.
The governor’s office did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment.
His lack of action on the Pinelands contrasts with other appointments Murphy has made on the New Jersey Highlands Council, where he replaced the executive director with a choice applauded by environmentalists.
Groups see need for quick action
Some environmentalists fear if the governor does not act quickly, some controversial issues may come up before the commission, including a proposed 22-mile natural-gas pipeline to the B.L. England plant through parts of the Pinelands.
A legal challenge to the approval of the project is now before a state appeals court based on litigation brought by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, the New Jersey Sierra Club, and others. The 10-mile project crosses through parts of the Pinelands.
Lena Smith, senior organizer for Food & Water Watch, argued the region faces new threats of oil and gas infrastructure being built through the Pinelands. “Gov. Murphy has an opportunity to reverse the direction the Pinelands Commission went during the Christie administration,’’ she said.
The Christie administration repeatedly approved gas pipeline projects as part of its energy master-plan goal of building out the energy infrastructure of New Jersey. The expansion, driven by cheap natural gas found in neighboring Pennsylvania, lowered prices for consumers and businesses, but met with stiff opposition from environmentalists and local communities.
Just last week, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection rejected a controversial housing development comprising nearly 4,000 units in Manchester Township in the Pinelands National Reserve, a decision widely applauded by many of the environmental groups.
The Pinelands are at a crossroads, argued Janet Tauro, board chair of Clean Water Action of New Jersey. “The Pinelands are sacrosanct and anyone who doesn’t appreciate, or defend that position, doesn’t deserve to serve as commissioner,’’ she said.