Op-Ed: An opportunity within the Pinelands

Robert Dailyda | May 5, 2021 | Opinion
Tension continues between conservation advocates and advocates of recreational motor vehicle access. We should focus on collaboration ‘around the shared goal to preserve the Pinelands environment that we all love’
Robert Dailyda

Our 51st annual Earth Day has recently passed, but it is not forgotten. The official theme was Restore Our Earth. The first Earth Day in 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban dwellers and farmers, business, and labor leaders. By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of many first-of-their-kind environmental laws.

This year will also be the 41st anniversary of the adoption of the New Jersey Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan. The plan was designed to promote orderly development by guiding growth toward appropriate areas while safeguarding the region’s unique natural, ecological, agricultural, archaeological, historical, scenic, cultural and recreational resources. Consequently, one could say that Earth Day is every day in the New Jersey Pinelands. However, there is an ongoing tension between those advocating for recreational motor vehicle access and those advocating for conservation.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture study cites that people in the U.S. spend over $600 billion per year on recreation, including equipment as well as the goods and services associated with the recreational activity. The original Pinelands management plan recognized the economic benefit of recreation. In 1980, New Jersey residents spent an estimated $29.7 million pursuing recreational opportunities in the Pinelands. Adjusted for inflation, this is roughly $94 million in current-year dollars.

In the case of the conservation organizations, their goals would be satisfied if motor vehicle access to the forest were severely curtailed and human access limited to foot and canoe/kayak. In the case of the recreation groups, motor vehicle access is their priority; if unlimited motor vehicle access were allowed, the recreation groups would achieve their objectives. Taking each extreme to the limit, each would also suffer a negative consequence of their own advocacy. Total protection would exclude humans from access, and therefore we would be protecting an area that few could access to appreciate and learn. On the other hand, total access would also result in significant destruction of the natural habitat that lures them to the forest to recreate.

The best conservation approach?

A 2010 study published in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Review found that the initial reaction by authorities is generally to limit motorized vehicle access, resulting in the closure of access in sensitive areas. The evolution of the motorized vehicle situation in the watershed forest is comparable in that the initial approach by the watershed forest managers was to prohibit access to sensitive areas with no public input. This caused an outcry by recreational users, which resulted in the Department of Environmental Protection rescinding the plan. While prohibiting access can seemingly solve the immediate problem of protecting sensitive areas, the process for implementing that approach was flawed.

As a follow-up, user groups were engaged to volunteer to install signs advising people that the area was patrolled and where certain roads were not accessible. While the engagement of user groups was an evolutionary step forward and the community began to engage, there is a significant opportunity for improvement to move beyond engagement. The requirement of the Comprehensive Management Plan for public participation in the planning process, in practice is addressed mainly through the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, which holds regular meetings where public comment is permitted. Both advocates desiring access for recreational use and conservationists have spoken out. There are questions whether this model as implemented is effective at incorporating all voices and whether it meets the full spirit of public participation as required by the management plan.

How do we approach maximizing recreational opportunities while preserving the fragile Pinelands environment? Recent studies have recognized the need to integrate concerns of ecological durability, economic viability and social acceptance if there is to be a widespread acceptance of conservation solutions. Within this framework, the focus is both a collaborative process and an outcome driven by stakeholder input.

The concept of Earth Day goes well beyond the scientific and policy realms. Earth Day has been effective because it unites people with diverse views around a shared purpose: to protect the environment. We live in a time when people appear polarized over many important issues. Earth Day passed as a single day, but its spirit lives on year-round. We should take the opportunity to reflect on and embrace the Earth Day principles, and focus on bridge-building and collaboration around the shared goal to preserve the Pinelands environment that we all love.