Returning the Pines to the People

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.




What It Means to be a Young Forester

From left to right: Caroline Scanlan, Andrew Wilcox, Jessica Wikle, Lydia Mendoza, Emily Dolhansky, Leana Weissberg, Leonora Pepper, Nicholas Biemiller, Cameron Musser

*This op-ed was originally written for and published in the November 2016 edition of The Forestry Source. 

This November I attended the National SAF Convention in Madison, Wisconsin as a member of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies’ student chapter. It was my first national convention and I was amazed at how much I learned in such a short amount of time. My peers and I split our time among different presentations; our wide array of interests allowed us to listen to several talks that we later discussed together. At one point I brought up how often I was referred to as a “young forester” over the course of the convention. I am 22 years old. I fall into the nebulous group of people known as millennials. And I am a recent college graduate ready to take on the complex issues of forestry that my generation faces. A student for nearly all my life, I never perceived myself as young, nor did I see the forestry I was studying as any different from that which came before me. However, in the context of the convention, I was able to reflect on what it means to be a young forester in an evolving field.

In general, I believe natural resource managers my age have a different set of values than older generations. The timber industry is no longer our only career prospect – in fact, my generation might be the first that values the ecosystem services forests provide more than the monetary value that timber does. While timber production is and will always be an integral part of forestry, the focus is shifting away from it.

Being a young forester means that being a woman in the field is no longer a novel concept. Of the 18 Yale F&ES students who attended the convention, 12 were women. I attended several presentations given by women, and met many young women excited to advance as professionals in their realms of expertise. While we still have a ways to go, women’s voices are being heard and respected more so than ever before.

Finally, young foresters care about communication. And not just the type of communication that involves texting each other where the best Wisconsin cheese curds can be found. Science drives us, but the desire to share our knowledge with the public is equally important. We see the internet, and perhaps social media, as one of the best ways to accomplish this. We want everyone to engage in the dialogue around our natural resources – regardless of age, race, gender, or sexuality – and proper communication is key to doing so.

I hope I have the opportunity to attend future conferences and support an even younger generation.  As I watched Wisconsin’s autumnal forest fade from view beneath a layer of clouds on my flight back to Connecticut, I reflected on what it means to be a young forester and why I’m proud to be one.

There’s no doubt that the field of forestry is changing. There should be no doubt that it is being left in capable hands.

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