Featured Photo: Lake Fred at Stockton University, by David Carr
It was 34° F and raining when close to 200 people were locked out of a public meeting with the New Jersey Pinelands Commission over a proposed pipeline that would cut through miles of ecologically sensitive habitat within the state’s national reserve. Due to a last-minute switch to a smaller venue, only 120 people were allowed into the January 24 meeting and the rest were forced to wait outside in freezing conditions. Those that remained could be heard chanting “let us in” and “no pipeline!” even after the meeting was adjourned. Despite outcry from the public, the Pinelands Commission would approve construction of the pipeline in a 9-5 vote on February 24, 2017.
According to their website, the Commission’s mission is to “preserve, protect, and enhance the natural resources of the Pinelands National Reserve.”
This is not the first time the public has clashed with the Pinelands Commission – in fact, individuals and environmental groups such as the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, The Sierra Club, and Environment New Jersey have been at odds with the commission over its governance of the Pinelands for years. The fiasco that took place on January 24 is a symptom of a much larger problem: that the Commission’s decision-making process is no longer as democratic as it was created to be. The Pinelands Commission is an independent state agency created in 1979 to govern local land use and implement development regulations within the 1.1-million-acre national reserve. The board is comprised of 15 non-paid commissioners: seven appointed by the NJ Governor, seven appointed by the NJ counties that fall within the Pinelands border, and one appointed by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
But the true heroes of the Pinelands are the people who live within them.
When the Pinelands Commission listens to the voices of the people, victories for the environment are possible. In 1997, a well was constructed just outside the Pinelands boundary to provide water to Camden County residents. When members of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance noticed that a wetlands area inside the Pinelands was drying up, they pushed for a formal hearing with the Commission to request that the well draw from another source of water. In 2001, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance was victorious and the Pinelands Commission turned down the water company’s allocation request, forcing them to find another source. During this time, the Commission and the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) met with hundreds of concerned individuals who turned the tide in the environment’s favor.
There needs to be a fundamental change in how Pinelands Commission decisions are reached – if not a restructuring of how Pinelands Commissioners themselves are elected. Why is it that the governor, many of whom have lived in northern New Jersey, well outside of the Pinelands, has the power to appoint seven commissioners? More often than not, those that are elected serve the governor’s special interests – and are replaced if they don’t. In 2014 and 2015, two commissioners were hastily replaced by Gov. Chris Christie because they voted in opposition to the South Jersey Gas/Rockland Capital pipeline. The governor’s power to appoint and replace commissioners should be revoked. Instead, two commissioners from each NJ county in the Pinelands should be democratically elected, in addition to the federally appointed one. This would prevent the governor from acting in his or her own self-interest, and return the power to the people.
Community management of the Pinelands is possible – but not when people are locked out of meetings and have their voices silenced. If a fundamental restructuring of how Pinelands Commissioners are elected is not feasible, then there needs to be more transparency during critical decision-making processes
Or, at the very least, a venue that can accommodate everyone who comes to the meetings.