At a panel discussion Sunday, March 3, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author John McPhee sat down with two former governors of New Jersey, and preservation activists to discuss The Pine Barrens: The Past, the Politics, and the Future.
The doors of Princeton University’s McCosh Auditorium, which seats over 450, opened at 1 p.m. and by 2 p.m., it was standing room only.
Numerous audience members brought out well-thumbed copies of McPhee’s seminal book The Pine Barrens for the Princeton author to sign.
The panel discussion was presented in conjunction with the Morven Museum and Garden’s current exhibition, The Pine Barrens: A Legacy of Preservation, Photographs by Richard Speedy. Morven’s Director of Development Barbara Webb introduced the speakers.
In addition to Mr. McPhee, panelists were Governor Brendan T. Byrne (1974-1982) whose executive order placed a moratorium on Pinelands development and who ultimately brought about legislation for permanent preservation; -Governor Jim Florio (1990-1994), past chairman of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission; Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance; and Michele Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservaton Foundation (NJCF). The discussion was moderated by Michael Aron, broadcast journalist with NJN TV.
Mr. McPhee’s book was lauded for inspiring the movement to protect the New Jersey Pinelands that encompass the Pine Barrens and cover over a million acres of Southern New Jersey, a land of pine and oak forests, streams and rivers, farms and hamlets, above an underground reservoir of pure sand-filtered water.
“The preservation of the Pine Barrens speaks to the power of a book, the vigilance of citizens, and the dedication of politicians,” said Ms. Webb.
The discussion opened with remarks from Mr. Montgomery on the importance of the unique ecosystem of the Pinelands. He described the area as “a Noah’s ark of bio-diversity threatened by tempestuous seas” and said that the aquifer is “the lifeblood of the region,” supporting the state’s blueberry and cranberry industries and providing drinking water for hundreds of thousands.
The Cohansey Aquifer contains over 17 trillion gallons, so much water that if it were above ground, the entire State of New Jersey would be one giant lake about ten feet deep.
“If there’s one person without whom there wouldn’t be a Pinelands Act that would be John McPhee” said Gov. Byrne, recalling the circumstances of his interest in the region. “John and I were part of a tennis group in Princeton. When we finished playing tennis, we would talk,” said the former Morven resident.
In 1967, Mr. McPhee, now one of the nation’s most prominent nonfiction writers, published his fourth book, The Pine Barrens, a study of the region’s unique ecology and history. Threatened by proposals for a combined jetport, industrial park, and new city of a quarter million people, the Pine Barrens, McPhee concluded, seemed “headed slowly toward extinction.”
Mr. McPhee’s book ended on a pessimistic note: “Given the futilities of the debate, given the sort of attention that is ordinarily paid to plans put forth by conservationists, and given the great numbers and the crossed purposes of all the big and little powers that would have to work together to accomplish anything on a major scale in the pines, it would appear that the Pine Barrens are not very likely to be the subject of dramatic decrees or acts of legislation.”
These words were a red flag to Mr. Byrne. In the years after The Pine Barrens was published, the author’s pessimism seemed fully justified. With northern and central New Jersey increasingly densely populated and available real estate soaring in price, developers were looking to the pine forests as potential sites for large-scale development at comparatively affordable costs.
The region’s development had been restricted by limited transportation access but proposals for new highways could bring expansion.
In 1972, the New Jersey Jersey Legislature and Governor William Cahill approved a plan by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to construct a 36-mile-long, four-lane toll expressway from the Garden State Parkway in Toms River to the New Jersey Turnpike in South Brunswick.
Such plans were abandoned after Mr. Byrne intervened, sparked by Mr. McPhee’s pessimism. “McPhee said that nothing would be done,” said Gov. Byrne. “It’s the only time I’ve known John McPhee to be wrong.”
Gov. Byrne was so moved by his friend’s descriptions that he called his deputy and said: “Stop issuing permits in the Pinelands.” When his action was questioned as being “unconstitutional,” the governor responded by signing an executive order, perhaps the most famous in New Jersey history. “I did it, and it stopped development in the Pinelands, but then it was challenged and so we introduced a bill and when that was challenged we went to the New Jersey Supreme Court,” he said. Mr. Byrne described the enormous opposition his efforts met with, not only from powerful outside interests but often from members of his own staff.
On February 8, 1979, the governor’s Executive Order established the Pinelands Planning Commission, a successor body to a review committee he’d already created. In his second term as governor, he passed the Pinelands Protection Act authorizing a comprehensive plan for the 1.1 million acre Pinelands National Reserve.
The Brendan T. Byrne State Forest (formerly Lebanon State Forest) is named for the 47th Governor of New Jersey who was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2011.
Gov. Florio who, as a member of Congress authored the House version of the bill that eventually became known as the “Superfund,” as well as the Pinelands Protection Act of 1987, also described the effect of Mr. McPhee’s book during the Nixon administration when there was great interest in oil drilling off the coast of New Jersey. “People from Louisiana were coming here and there was concern about a pipeline that would go from the Shore to the refineries on the Delaware, right through the Pinelands — there was even talk about South Jersey seceding from the state,” he recalled. “Things improved when Carter was elected but there is no doubt that Governor Byrne’s executive order did the job of maintaining the status quo until legislation was signed.”
In spite of these historic successes, Mr. Montgomery was quick to point out the need to guard against complacency. “A time will come when we’ve built on all the surrounding land and it will be threatened again,” he said, citing the recent building of a Walmart in Tom’s River for which a permit was fist denied by the state because of a threatened species of snake and then approved after some political wrangling. He said: “Making exceptions ultimately weakens legislation. It is not the case that a law is passed and its done, there still has to be vigilance.”
Noting the non-partisan nature of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance at its founding, Mr. Aron asked Mr. Montgomery whether this was still the case. Are members of the Alliance “friendly to preservation?” he asked. Mr. Montgomery responded: “Some are, some aren’t and some are there to do what they are told to do by a very powerful governorship. We in New Jersey tend to go in for bossy governors,” he said, to general audience delight as he was seated next to two former governors. “For many years, the Alliance was non-partisan, our biggest worry today is that such independence has been eroded.
Ms. Byers concurred. “If it hadn’t been for the Pinelands Preservation Act, this area would now be covered by houses,” she said, adding that so much of what has been achieved has been through personal relationships even with those who oppose preservationist ideals.
Ms. Byers spoke of the need for citizens to become personally involved with the Pine Barrens. “We need to reach out and engage the entire state on this issue. If people don’t go to the Pine Barrens and develop a personal relationship with the region, the developers will. Get out there, take your kids there and love this place,” she urged.
For all too many people in the state of New Jersey the image most associated with the Pine Barrens is that of of the “Jersey Devil,” a horned creature purportedly born to a local woman. Anyone who sees the current exhibition at Morven will have such ideas replaced through the stunning photographs by local photographer Richard Speedy. The Pine Barrens: A Legacy of Preservation features 32 of Mr. Speedy’s works alongside the story of the region’s preservation. It continues through April 14 at Morven Museum and Garden, 55 Stockton Street.