By: Chris Bunn. A small glimpse into the wonders of Pine Barrens ecology, the fight of a local NGO against the interests of the fossil fuel industry, how the Pinelands is a microcosm of global issues, and what my unique home has taught me about action and empowerment.
Some people call New Jersey the armpit of the nation. Oh, my great state; the only images that many around the US can conjure of my home is billowing smokestacks, oil refineries, highways filled with traffic, and an all-enveloping urban sprawl. “You’re from New Jersey?” I hear so often, with a hint of “I’m sorry” imbued in the tones of folks who’ve only driven through on I-95 or flown into Newark. And, to their surprise, I say proudly, “Yes, I am,” not because of the miles of urban sprawl, but because my image and experience of New Jersey is much different than theirs. In 1978, then-Governor Brendan T. Byrne created the first national reserve in the United States, the Pinelands National Reserve. Throughout its 42-year history, it has served not only as an educational resource and critical habitat for vulnerable species but also as a center of action in the fight to address global climate change. Never heard of it? Let's take a look!
An aerial view of the Batsto River and Wharton State Forest
The Pinelands: An Introduction
The Pinelands National Reserve is the largest body of open space on the mid-Atlantic coastline between Richmond and Boston and consists of 1.1 million acres of land. Within its borders are municipalities like mine here in Hammonton, NJ, miles of freshwater streams, more than 6000 acres of designated wilderness, blueberry farms, cranberry bogs, and everything in between. The Reserve sits atop the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer, an astounding reservoir estimated to contain 17 trillion gallons of fresh water which supplies clean drinking water to the more than 2 million residents that live in southern New Jersey.
When European settlers colonized the region we now know as South Jersey, they found much of the soil to be sandy and nutrient-poor, labeling it on their maps as “Sandy Barren Deserts.'' They realized that they couldn’t grow their traditional crops in the sandy soil, and that’s why the Pine Barrens came to be known as such. Hundreds of years later, we can see that the settlers were far off-base in their opinions about this land, and we now know that the “Pine Barrens”, a name which refers to the ecosystem, or the “Pinelands”, which refers to the land within the political boundaries of the reserve, is in fact home to many diverse forms of plant and animal life.
Political boundaries of the Pinelands in New Jersey
Pine Barrens Ecology
The Pinelands sit in a unique geographical position and are a hub of both Northern and Southern plant and animal species. Many rare and endangered species are found here, some of which cannot be found in any other part of the world. According to NJ.gov, “The Pinelands is home to 39 species of mammals, 299 bird species, 59 reptile and amphibian species and 91 fish species. This includes 43 animal species that are listed as threatened or endangered”. A few of these unique species are shown below. The Pine Barrens Tree Frog
The Timber Rattlesnake (endangered)
The Pine Warbler
The Swamp Pink Flower (endangered)
The Pitcher Plant
The Pine Barrens Gentian
...and many more!
In order to thrive, all of these species require the unique ecosystem that the Pine Barrens provide, which consists of sandy, well-drained, acidic, and nutrient-poor soil, and frequent wildfires. This ecosystem is characterized mainly by Pitch Pine and varieties of Oak. Usually, Pines are early-successional trees, meaning they are the first to help establish forests and are eventually shaded out and replaced by taller trees like Oak. So how is it that the Pine Barrens stays filled with Pitch Pines and doesn’t transition to solely hardwoods like Oaks? Well, that’s another cool aspect of the Pine Barrens; it is maintained through fire.
Fire in the Pines
When we think of fire, we usually think of destruction. But in the Pines, fire is actually a force of creation. Pitch Pine trees specifically have adapted so that some of their cones are serotinous, meaning they’ll only release their seeds once subject to the extreme heat that wildfire provides. In addition, whereas Oak trees have very thin bark, Pitch Pines have very thick bark that acts as insulation from the intense heat of a fire, thus protecting the tree. When a wildfire occurs, which can be often here in the Pines, it will kill all or most of the Oaks and their acorns, burn off the forest-floor duff consisting of detritus that pine seeds normally cannot penetrate, and open up the Pitch-Pine cones, allowing them to release their seeds. In addition, wildfires clear the land and fertilize it with ash, providing perfect breeding habitat for young Pitch Pine trees. This means that wildfire is an essential element of the Pine Barrens ecosystem.
Wilderness in the Midst of Suburbia
One of the most marvelous things to me about the Pinelands is that it is almost completely surrounded by commercial and residential development. As I was driving down a back road through the Pines the other day, I couldn’t help but think of how astounding it is that a place like this can exist in the midst of the nation's most densely populated state. Just a ten-minute drive from an urbanized area characterized by manicured lawns, shopping centers, and suburban houses can take you into acres of designated wilderness with expanses of Pitch Pines and Wild-Blueberries, Cedar-water streams, and bogs filled with Wild Cranberries and Water Lilies.
The Fight Against Fossil Fuels in the Pines
With its unique biodiversity and ecology, its locally important water resources, and all of the opportunities the Pines provide for education and recreation, one would guess that all who live within a stone’s throw would wish to protect and preserve it, right? I wish I could say you’re correct. Though many in our region dearly love the Pinelands and fight to protect it, there are those too who seek to develop it, neglecting the threat that human disturbance poses to wildlife and water.
Our previous gubernatorial administration worked diligently to develop the Pinelands, and it did so through a corrupt political system that allied itself with the interests of oil companies. The administration accomplished this by infiltrating the Pinelands Commission, a board consisting of 15 members: seven appointed by the governor, seven by individual counties, and one federal representative from the Department of the Interior. This committee was created to make important decisions about what can happen within the protected Pinelands in line with the Comprehensive Management Plan (or CMP), a document written to protect the Pinelands from certain kinds of development and private interests. The previous administration stacked the committee with representatives who shared its interest in fossil fuels and would thus vote yes for fossil fuel infrastructure projects proposed in the Pinelands. Though our current gubernatorial administration has made some wonderful new nominations to the Pinelands Commission, those previous administration representatives remain on the committee, and in their time have worked to push through several fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the Pinelands.
The South Jersey Gas Pipeline
The first of these is the South Jersey Gas pipeline, otherwise known as the “Cape Atlantic Reliability Project”. It began in 2013 and was a $90 million 22-mile-long underground natural gas pipeline that was planned to cut straight through the protected Pinelands National Reserve. Though it was initially voted down by the Pinelands Commission, one of the members who voted it down was then replaced by the previous administration with a pipeline proponent. This is an action that was repeated several times throughout that administration. Shortly after, it was approved by the executive director without a vote by the full commission. Though it was originally found to be in direct violation of the Comprehensive Management Plan, and indeed did not serve the needs of the Pinelands residents, human and non-human, the commission reversed its position and gave the go-ahead for the pipeline’s construction. South Jersey Gas, the company behind the pipeline, planned to convert the BL England Electric plant, which was ordered to stop burning coal, into a natural gas plant. They claimed that the pipeline was needed for reliable gas service to people of the shore. However, one organization in specific was determined to stop the pipeline for the integrity of the Pinelands National Reserve. They are known as the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA).
Map of the SJG Pipeline
Protestors hold signs at a Pinelands Commission meeting
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance and its lawyers met South Jersey Gas in court, arguing that their claims were not factually based and that the BL England Plant owners had not in fact promised to build a new plant. A truly collaborative effort, the fight against the pipeline galvanized the efforts of the public and various environmental organizations in southern New Jersey, working to stall the construction of the pipeline for a total of six years. In early 2019, PPA found that the owners of the BL England Plant had done nothing to begin constructing the new power plant, and within hours of bringing this information to the Attorney General, the company that owned BL England withdrew from the case, stating they did not intend to re-power it, and thus the pipeline, which no longer had any basis, was defeated. The actions of Pinelands advocates proved to be crucial in this battle, for during the time they provided through stalling the pipeline’s development, its rationale disappeared.
The Southern Reliability Link Pipeline
Though the South Jersey Gas pipeline was defeated, yet another pipeline has been proposed and approved in the Pinelands. New Jersey Natural Gas (NJNG) is currently constructing a pipeline that plans to run through 12.1 miles of lands protected under the Pinelands National Reserve, and devastatingly it too was approved by the Pinelands Commission. Though road permits have been granted to NJNG to construct the pipeline, those in Burlington County are currently upheld, thanks to the action of PPA’s lawyers. They are currently attempting to appeal the 3-2 vote that issued those permits, arguing that the officials who voted “yes” had a conflict of interest due to their “employment by a building trades union that advocated for the pipeline” (Burlington County Times). To learn more, visit this link.
Construction of the Southern Reliability Link
The Pinelands: A Microcosm of National and Global Issues
One of the main fears of allowing fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the Pinelands, and within other federally protected areas like state or national parks, is that the first ones approved pave the way for others to follow. Their construction proves falsely that the structures in place to protect these areas are in accordance with such development and resource extraction by private interests, when in fact they are not. Like many political entities, the Pinelands Commission has been and remains infiltrated by political and corporate interests, and shows us that when influenced by the money of powerful industries like the fossil fuel industry, governmental organizations charged with environmental protection often shift their interests in favor of development and against the protection of the well-being of human and non-human beings. This isn’t just an issue here in New Jersey; it’s an issue in our national government.
As the issues in the Pinelands are a microcosm of our national crisis with corporate political influence, so too are the previously mentioned fossil fuel infrastructure projects a part of the larger discourse on climate change. Companies like New Jersey Natural Gas and South Jersey Gas represent the interests of the fossil fuel industry at large, which claim that more fossil fuel infrastructure will support U.S. citizens and that fossil fuels like natural gas are a “sustainable” source of energy. This branding of natural gas as “green”, even though its production often involves environmentally destructive extraction methods like fracking, works to strongly influence the interest of environmentally-conscious consumers. Though it may be true that natural gas accounts for fewer carbon emissions than oil or coal, with the climate crisis looming about us, the need for a transition to a zero-carbon economy is imperative, and thus we cannot allow for the construction of any new fossil fuel infrastructure projects.
Conclusion - Acting Locally, Thinking Globally
As a young person, attempting to address colossal issues like climate change is often daunting. The activities of federal and international entities are generally out of my hands, and as an individual, I often feel powerless to make a change. Thankfully, I’ve been blessed by people and places that remind me of how being involved in local organizations works to empower you. My home, the Pinelands, has shown me that by acting locally to support and create organizations that work to educate about and fight to protect our local ecosystems, our voices become amplified, and we become a part of the global discourse on important issues. The members and employees of organizations like the Pinelands Preservation Alliance have shown me that acting to protect our local ecosystems and fighting for global climate justice go hand-in-hand. And in reverse, fighting for global climate justice works to protect our local ecosystems. Working from the ground up, we can transform our world one small action at a time.
If you’d like to learn more about the Pinelands, please visit this link!
Also, for a pre-colonial history of southern New Jersey, check out the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape website and read their ebook entitled "We Are Still Here" by John R Norwood.