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The NJ Environmental Community Is Unified – And Weaker And More Ineffective Than Ever

The Spirit of Kumbaya Prevails – Over An Invisible Community

The Regulatory Lion Has Lain Down With the Conservation Lamb

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When I came to Trenton in the fall of 1985 as a DEP policy planner fresh out of Cornell Graduate School, there were 2 spheres of the NJ “environmental community”:

1) the “conservation groups” (NJCF, Audubon, TPL, TNC, PPA, ANJEC, and several smaller regional land trusts) who worked primarily on open space and voluntary land acquisition, a voluntary State Plan, and voluntary local Environmental Commissions. They would take credit for or co-opt the work of more aggressive local groups that would arise to fight developments, especially in the Highlands.

2) the Trenton groups (NJ PIRG, NJ Environmental Federation, Sierra Club) who focused on air and water pollution, toxic waste sites, hazardous and solid waste management, public health, and environmental quality. They were supplemented by very aggressive local and regional groups like Madelyn Hoffman at GREO, Bob Speigel at Edison Wetlands, Joe Morris Jersey City chromium and brownfields; Peter Montague, and nascent environmental justice groups forming in Newark and Camden who worked on stopping garbage incinerators, banning ocean dumping, anti-toxics, Pollution Prevention, the Precautionary Principle and pesticides. Labor was involved via Rick Engler at NJ Work Environment Council.

There was very little overlap in the issues they worked on; or the legislative, regulatory, and political agendas; or the funding sources; or the media; or the political endorsements; or the overall message, framing, strategy, and tactics used – thus there was little conflict or competition between the two groups.

But that all changed dramatically when two things happened:

1) The Whitman administration divided the community.

Whitman’s attacks, primarily on DEP and environmental regulation, created incentives for the conservation community to find political cover for their failures to criticize the Whitman administration, who they were working with on a “million acre” open space goal. Mike Catania led that effort. They also sought to tone down the Gov.’s harsh critics.

At the same time, some Trenton labor leaders who were close to Democrats (Jeff Scott of CWA 1034, DEP’s local) – who funded NJ Environmental Federation, a leading Trenton group – thought they could form a coalition to co-opt the Republican leaning conservation groups to back their agenda. At the time, CWA/NJEF’s agenda primarily focused on stopping Gov. Whitman’s deep cuts to DEP’s budget (thus the CWA’s leading role. Tim Dillingham, then head of Sierra, was involved as well. That’s where the first successful Constitutional dedication of the Corporate Business Tax campaign came from. Full disclosure: CWA paid my salary at the time and I did the research for an was on the inside of this strategy – on several issues, it went straight from Torricelli to Gore).

These parallel incentives for both camps led to the formation of a “unified” community coalition under the banner of “The Environmental Summit” led by conservationists and Republican Candy Ashmum.

It turns out that Jeff Scott was dead wrong – he failed to co-opt the conservationists, they co-opted everyone else. The hunter was captured the game! (h/t Jerry Garcia!)

2) Conservation groups and their Foundation backers challenged the prevailing leadership and sought an ideological and political shift

The conservation groups – backed by NJ’s elite corporate Foundations (Dodge, Wm. Penn, et al), grant funding from DEP programs, like the CBT fueled Watershed Planning Process and all the local watershed groups, and corporate “mitigation” money provided by Mike Catania’s “Conservation Resources, Inc.” model  and the rise of NJ Audubon’s “Corporate Stewardship” – began to expand their scope and encroach on the sphere of operations and the traditional turf and issue set of the Trenton based groups. Conservation leaders like Catania, Ashmum, and Daggett also sought to shift the policy agenda away from some Trenton DEP based regulatory issues (like toxic sites, air and water pollution, command and control regulation, and corporate accountability) and moderate the “strident” voices of people like Jeff Tittel. They wanted to stop working at cross purposes and airing dirty laundry.

[Update: Jeff Tittel correctly takes me to task for minimizing exactly what these people wanted to do. He writes:

They didn’t try to moderate my voice -the tried to drown it out –  the funders gave money to the groups to use one funder put it to take the press away from jeff tittel and gave money the weenies and njef to do it – they failed ~~~ end update]

A decade or so later, new groups emerged on the scene, like Food And Water Watch, Sustainable NJ, NJ Future, NJ LCV, “Renew NJ”, Delaware River Partnership, and the EJ groups. These folks had little to no historical, political or institutional understanding or scientific or regulatory expertise in many issues.

Some of the groups were Foundation money created – basically astro-turf operations.

So, 25 years later, here we are. Sitting around the DEP’s Stakeholder table.

My goodness, it’s now OK that a former Exxon Mobil “scientist” heads “partner” NJ Audubon:


An entire community, sold for the proverbial mess of pottage.

The dreams of Chris Daggett (Dodge Foundation), Mike Catania (Duke Foundation), and Candy Ashmum (recently deceased) have come true: the NJ environmental community is finally unified, controlled, and speaks with one voice.

But it is the voice of a eunuch, where the lowest common denominator of “consensus” calls the tune. [BTW, for the language police out there, the term “eunuch” in this context has no gender basis. The definition includes: “an ineffective person”. Look it up!]

Those pesky Trenton radicals – who used aggressive tactics and harsh rude media rhetoric to criticize DEP, the Governor, Legislators, and powerful NJ based chemical, pharmaceutical and energy corporations and land developers – have been marginalized and co-opted by the moderate and civil conservation community.

The primary focus on making “politically unfeasible” demands for State legislation and regulation backed by enforcement teeth and funding has been diverted to modest, incremental, market based incentives.

Rude nasty voices of criticism from people like Joe Morris (Jersey City), Bob Speigel (Edison Wetlands), Bill Neil (NJ Audubon), Curtis Fisher (NJ PIRG), Bill Wolfe (NJ PEER) and Jeff Tittel (Sierra Club) have been defunded, effectively silenced, and exiled.

No more will loud voices from Trenton be splashed across NJ news to make the placid privileged lives of conservationists in Basking Ridge uncomfortable.

No more will internal disagreements spill into public view and no longer will “green” dirty laundry be aired.

An entirely new group, NJ League Of Conservation Voters, now provides political cover for lame political endorsements and day to day policy defense for the Gov. and DEP.

The core leaders all take care of each other: they log roll on funding, they sit on each others Boards of Directors (in the corporate world, this is denounced as corrupt: “interlocking directorates”. I call it the “Green Mafia”), and they all come from the same elite class and cultural background.

No longer will there be all those disturbing press conferences, protests, and media events attacking and ridiculing government and corporate NJ.

The community is unified.

Civility, consensus, and partnerships with government and corporate NJ rule the day.

The community can finally work in partnership with the governor and the legislature to promote corporate friendly, market based, voluntary, individual incentives and local solutions, not some one size fits all, top down, Trenton based, Soviet style, command and control regulatory mandates!

[End Note: I just received a detailed email from my friend Bill Neil that provides several specific examples of the dynamics I’ve overviewed above. Bill reminds me that I left a lot out. I’m aware of an in agreement with everything Bill wrote. Bill is a brilliant writer, so I’m trying to get him to guest author a followup Part 2 of this post, fleshing those issues out in detail. We’ll let you know how I make out.


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