Report urges governor to be proactive in Pinelands preservation

At more than a million acres, the Pinelands occupies most of Southern New Jersey. In 1979, Gov. Brendan Byrne signed the Pinelands Protection Act to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and streams.

“One of the principal reasons was that we have an aquifer, called the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, a huge body of clean water underground that’s used to support agriculture and people’s water supply,” said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

But the annual report from the Pinelands Preservation Alliance says that supply is under threat.

“In many places it’s being over exploited and we are losing that water supply,” he said.

Montgomery says the Pinelands Commission — the state agency in charge of protecting the Pinelands — is failing to do just that when it comes to the aquifer.

“Pinelands Commission needs to move quickly to reform its regulations about water allocations, about the withdrawal of water from the aquifer,” Montgomery said.

The report gave the commission good grades for protecting rare roadside plants, its report on the vulnerability of ponds and its educational programs. But the report is not all positive.

“Two of the worst decisions the Pinelands Commission has ever made in its 40 year history were its approval of two new natural gas pipelines through Pineland conservation areas,” Montgomery said.

The report also criticizes the commission for what it says is the agency’s restricting public access and comment, trying to approve major developments without a Pinelands Commission vote, and failing to act on vast off road vehicle damage.

A spokesperson for the commission pushed back, issuing a statement that said in part, “… this report ignores many of the Commission’s significant accomplishments in 2018. This includes preserving 579 acres of land, reviewing hundreds of development applications to ensure compliance with Pinelands rules, conducting numerous scientific studies, monitoring the region’s economy, and increasing public access to information.”

Gov. Phil Murphy has yet to appoint new commissioners — seven in all — meaning the holdovers are appointees from the previous governor, who Montgomery says was no friend of the Pinelands.

“Unfortunately, Chris Christie, our former governor, was not a big supporter of protecting natural resources and we’re seeing the consequences of that in the people that he put on the Pinelands Commission, the agency we rely on principally to protect the Pinelands,” he said.

The Governor’s Office had no comment on the report or a timeline for appointments. So while the report pays tribute to Byrne as the father of the Pinelands, it calls on the current governor to get proactive in order to preserve that legacy.