Preservationists Pay Homage to Gov. Byrne for Saving The Pinelands
NJ Pinelands preservation supporters turned out in large numbers for a panel discussion at Princeton last Sunday to pay homage to former Gov. Brendan Byrne for his leadership in saving the Pinelands and forcing the legislature to enact the 1979 Pinelands Protection Act.
The well attended event featured a panel discussion among former Governors Byrne and Florio, writer John McPhee, Carleton Montgomery of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, and Michele Byers of NJ Conservation Foundation.
Panelists agreed that without Byrne’s leadership – which led to the passage of the Pinelands Protection Act and the Comprehensive Management Plan – the 1 million acre Pinelands region would be paved over and look like the wasteland that is most of the rest of NJ.
Panelists also agreed that threats remain unabated, and there is constant political pressure to rollback and exploit loopholes and weaknesses in the Act and CMP.
Governor Florio (who served in Congress from 1975 – 1990) shared his national perspective, noting that the Carter Administration and many in Congress – just like today – were concerned about the Nixon Administration’s energy policy, impacts of off shore drilling, and plans to run pipelines across the Pines to refineries along the Delaware River. This prompted Congress in 1978 to create the nation’s first National Reserve in the Pinelands.
In addition to noting parallels to today’s energy debates, Florio also connected the Pines to regional water issues and climate change, including land subsidence from over-pumping of aquifers, salt water intrusion, and exacerbation of climate change impacts associated with sea level rise.
Florio ran circles around the rest of the panel, in terms of policy and vision, but I was surprised at the relative lack of emphasis on the history and practice of regional planning [and it was interesting that this group chose to highlight Florio's bio of signing of the Clean Water Enforcement Act, but not his Pollution Prevention Act or Source Reduction/Recycling policy and nationally progressive Solid waste plan, which arguably had far greater positive impact.]
Gov. Byrne retold the history of how, after reading John McPhee’s 1968 book on the Pinelands, he directed his DEP Commissioner David Bardin to stop issuing permits in the Pinelands. Showing a respect for the rule of law, Commissioner Bardin told him that he couldn’t do that because it was unconstitutional.
So Byrne issued an Executive Order establishing a moratorium on DEP permits.
The moratorium was challenged legally.
In contrast with the myth of an independent, insulated, apolitical judicial branch focsued on the legal merits, Byrne recalled receiving a phone call from Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Hughes, who, Byrne said, asked him when he’d sign legislation to end the moratorium. Byrne recalled that Hughes agreed to hold off hearing the case until legislation was passed.
In these days of failed leadership and constant attacks on government, “job killing red tape” regulations, and environmental protection, it is hard for our current leaders to even imagine Gov. Byrne’s bold move.
Illustrating how far we’ve fallen, instead of that kind of bold, visionary leadership, today we have the irresponsible, short sighted dithering of Gov. Christie, who has issued a series of Executive Orders rolling back environmental protections, under the guise of promoting economic development.
It’s hard to imagine Gov. Christie – the Boardwalk Bully, prancing around in his Fleece – even reading an environmental book, never mind being moved to take action by one!
Christie’ DEP Commissioner, unlike his predecessor David Bardin, has no knowledge of or respect for environmental laws, and is not seeking to deny permits or thinking about leveraging economic interests in the legislature, but is instead working to deregulate and privatize the DEP permit review process.
What has remained constant since Byrne was in Office, however, are the powerful economic special interests that dominate the Legislature and block progress.
Instead of expanding land preservation and environmental regulation, Gov. Christie is the first Governor since Byrne with absolutely no environmmental legacy or major achievement.
In addition to his regulatory dismantling policies, Christie is presiding over the bankruptcy and failure to reauthorize the Green Acres open space funding program (while diverting over $800 million in clean energy funds).
Even Gov. Whitman didn’t go that far and was able to replenish the Garden State Trust.
Given the demographic and socio-economic profile of the audience (my guess is that average age was over 60, 100% white, and income/wealth in the top 2%), I was disappointed but not surprised that the panel discussion and questions from the audience ignored these Christie gorillas all around the room.
I’m no spring chicken and don’t generally get out among the Pinelands preservation crowd, and yes the place was packed, but I was really surprised by the audience profile, which strongly suggests the need for new blood.