A recent grass-roots petition calling for the upgrading of the Pinelands National Reserve to National Park status has gained thousands of signatures over the past few weeks. While the language of the petition needs substantial flushing out, the desire for a higher level of federal participation has merit, especially as the interference of state politics grows in the agencies charged with the stewardship of the Pinelands.
Although the re-designation of some part of the Pinelands National Reserve may not be a practical short-term proposal, Department of Interior and the National Park Service should take a stronger public role in the Pines. The Pinelands was designated as the Nation’s first National Reserve in order to fully protect the most important habitat while compromising in other areas to allow for the partial expansion of Pinelands Towns , Regional Growth Areas, and pre-existing agricultural use. Other cultural concerns were also taken into account, such as the highly valued practice of hunting and trapping. These multifaceted compromises were critical during the negotiations that led to the National Reserve’s designation, and this approach is the reason the Comprehensive Management Plan has been successful to date.
The Pinelands Protection Act(1979) was authorized by Congress due to the importance of the region to the Nation as a whole. The act ordered the creation of the Comprehensive Management Plan and directed the creation of the Pinelands Commission to oversee the plan’s implementation. This was truly a landmark land use agreement at the time and has been widely studied by other regions developing conservation arrangements with a large variety of public and private interests.
This model has functioned well for over three decades, but there are new concerns about the interference of State politics in stewardship decisions. Particularly concerning has been the executive branch’s efforts to replace the honest and dedicated Pinelands Commissioners who voted their conscious against the construction of the South proscar Jersey Gas Pipeline that is now being battled in the courts. This type of political interference is a serious threat to the integrity of the Commission and one that has been noticed by the citizenry and the press. The recent withdrawal of the Motorized Access Plan by the NJDEP has highlighted the negative effect special interest groups can have on the preservation of the land with the highest ecological value in the State. This failure of stewardship is not lost on the general public, and that is why we have seen such a strong public response to a petition that would take control out of the State’s hands.
The Federal Government should have a greater role in the management of this largest open space on the eastern seaboard between the everglades and the northern forests of Maine. As it stands today, the Department of Interior only has one seat on the Pinelands Commission, while seven Commissioners are appointed by the Governor of New Jersey and one Commissioner is appointed by each of the seven counties in the Pinelands Region. Additionally, the Chairperson of the Pinelands Commission is directly appointed by the Governor of New Jersey, and this combination has given the executive branch far more power than any other party.
With this new surge of grassroots energy to reestablish a federal relationship with the Pines, the Department of Interior should begin to take a more public role in the major decisions that need to be made by the Commission. If they do this, perhaps they can begin to rebalance the power relationship in the Commission and begin to put conservation first, instead of the desires of special interests. As New Jersey begins to reach the build out of available private land, there will be more pressure than ever to cave in to the demands of the developers. We are in the midst of a renewed conservation movement to counter this pressure and we are going to need all the help we can get.