It always amazes me that in New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the nation, we have the largest open space on the eastern seaboard between Maine and the Florida Everglades. The 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve takes up about 22% of the landmass in New Jersey and is a recreational resource for more than 22 million people living within 60 miles of its boundaries. Its forests, rivers, wetlands, agricultural areas and rural villages are a huge part of New Jersey’s identity. It is hard to imagine what New Jersey would be like without it.
The Pinelands National Reserve is our country’s first National Reserve – created with the passage of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978. It was created in order to “protect, preserve and enhance the significant values of the land and water resources of the Pinelands area.” The federal legislation directed the state of New Jersey to establish a planning entity (the Pinelands Commission) that would develop a Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) for the Pinelands. The CMP designates areas for conservation and areas for development and is supposed to do this in a way that protects the health of the ecosystem.
These boundaries have been in place for 35 years and have done a pretty good job protecting the wild forests and pristine waters of the Pinelands. This region will only survive if this plan is respected year after year keeping development out of these last precious areas. That, however, is getting harder to do.
We just released our annual State of the Pinelands report and it highlights the challenges of balancing human use and preservation of the Pinelands National Reserve. One of the issues highlighted in this year’s report is the failure of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to establish a plan to protect Wharton State Forest from the damages of illegal off-road vehicle use.
Wharton State Forest is the largest single tract of land in the New Jersey State Park System and is located in the heart of the Pinelands Preservation Area – the area that is supposed to have the highest level of protection. Managing motorized access could serve as a model for other publically owned land in the state. The DEP released a Motorized Access Plan in August 2015 that designated some areas for vehicular use and some areas for hiking, biking and horseback riding due to the sensitive nature of habitat. Vocal criticism followed the release of the DEP’s plan for Wharton and now we fear they will take no action in the foreseeable future to implement any plan to safeguard the natural resources that they are charged with protecting.
The construction of high pressure natural gas pipelines through protected areas in the Pinelands is another major threat identified in this year’s report. Two proposals from two different companies, New Jersey Natural Gas and South Jersey Gas, are poised to undo more that 35 years of Pinelands protection if approved.
Both natural gas pipelines violate the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP). Both are asking their ratepayers to foot the bill for a project that they have yet to prove is necessary to meet their stated purposes. Perhaps even worse, the Pinelands Commission has refused to officially rule on either project leaving the question of compliance with Pinelands rules in a bureaucratic no man’s land. This sets a terrible precedent for an independent state agency that the public depends on to “preserve, protect and enhance the natural and cultural resources of the Pinelands National Reserve.”
This is a critical moment for the survival of New Jersey’s Pinelands. This report shows that it is getting harder to keep inappropriate development out of areas that were set aside for protection by the Pinelands Plan over 35 years ago. When we allow Pinelands rules to be waived or ignored “just this time” we sacrifice the very foundation on which protection of the Pinelands is based. New Jersey’s residents can’t afford to be silent – the only way the Pinelands will survive is if citizens pressure our state government relentlessly to protect it.
Read the State of the Pinelands report on our website. Pinelands Preservation Alliance members will receive a copy of this report in the mail.
National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, page 2, Sec. 471i. Pine Barrens Area, New Jersey.