In this edition of WWR, Heather sits down for a follow-up interview with activist and fellow Piney Jason Howell, Stewardship Coordinator for Pineland Preservation Alliance, the only private, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the Pine Barrens in Southern New Jersey. View the original article here
Before diving into the issues, Jason settles once and for all the burning question on every listener’s mind: What the hell is a “Piney”? “It’s a term that means different things to different people,” explains Jason. “To me, it means somebody who lives in the Pine Barrens and knows the place, and knows how to exist in the place.” Jason is definitely a pure Piney at heart: According to him, his family history in the area goes back to early migrations by the Swedes and Finns in the 1700s. “We’re not Leni Lenape, but we’ve been here a while,” he jokes.
The Pinelands Reserve (AKA The Pine Barrens)
The Pine Barrens, also known as the Pinelands National Reserve or simply the Pines, stretches out over seven counties in Southern New Jersey: Atlantic, Ocean, Cumberland, Camden, Cape May, Gloucester, and Burlington. Jason says the area is essentially like a national park, but it isn’t governed like one. “The National Park Service is supposed to have some representation in the Pinelands, but they haven’t appointed their commissioner to the Pinelands Commision, which is the overseeing body,” says Jason. According to its official website, the Pinelands Commission is a 15-member body that includes an appointment by the Secretary of the Interior, one nomination by the New Jersey governor, and one representative from each of the respective counties the Pines cover.
Habitat for Endangered Species
When visiting the Pine Barrens, one will discover many species that are highly endangered and protected, such as the Pine Barrens Tree Frog and Swamp Pink, which Jason notes is all more reason to give the region the attention it deserves. “If you value wildlife, if you value natural beauty, if you appreciate that these things continue to exist, then it’s important to make sure that the place that they depend on is treated as well as it should be,” Jason notes.
ORV follow up
A critical issue facing the Pines is ongoing damage by off-road vehicles (ORVs) such as Jeeps and four-wheelers. Jason says the root cause of this is simply a lack of management.“Because the Pine Barrens has never had an overarching management entity, people have been basically able to do what they want to do with the place for a long time,” explains Jason. He notes that efforts to grow crops such as blueberries and cranberries have generally been safe, but says that recreation is a whole other animal.
“You have thousands of ATVs, Jeeps, trucks, just doing whatever they want on the landscape. That has caused a lot of problems,” he says. Jason explains that years ago, people used to be able to take standard two-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicles through the region without issue. Over time, the influx of more extreme ORVs have damaged the old sand trails that run throughout the Pines, trails that were once used by indigenous people many years ago. “You can’t even drive to a lot of places anymore because of how bad the roads are getting,” he says, “and they are very expensive to maintain.”
The old sand trails aren’t the only part of the Pines being damaged. Ponds that many protected and endangered species depend on are being destroyed as well. Jason says that some species have been using the ponds for thousands of years, and now they have to deal with the effects of ORVs. “We’re seeing those ponds impacted by people taking monster trucks, ATVs, and other off-road vehicles into them and just drive around in circles until the pond is completely de-vegetated, polluted and destroyed as part of the habitat,” he explains.
Volunteers Step Up
In response to the damage and lack of attention by lawmakers, Jason formed a volunteer group to put pressure on the state to add barriers such as wooden guard rails to the ponds. He adds those efforts are not without challenges. “There has been activism to prevent those kinds of measures from taking place in the Pine Barrens,” Jason says. “There’s people who don’t want much done on this topic. And some of them have the ear of some people within the Department of Environmental Protection.”
While some of the resistance stems from a paranoid sect of the ORV community who fear an army of Pineys will ruin their fun for good, Jason is pushing for a more inclusive environment. “Our vision is nature preserve plus public access, plus some harmonious use. The other vision is off-road vehicle park, and that is what we are doing everything we can to prevent,” he states.
Murphy Drops The Ball
One important name that hasn’t been mentioned yet is Governor Phil Murphy, who campaigned for governor in 2017 on a progressive platform that included increasing environmental protections. When asked if Murphy and the powers-that-be in Trenton would be on board with these proposals, Jason explains it’s all about politics and attention. “My feeling is that if the issue was to rise in saliency, that those people at the top of the DEP and Governor Murphy would be with us,” says Jason. “The problem is, South Jersey often gets ignored, and so we need to figure out how to not just promote South Jersey, but to promote the Pinelands and the Pinelands Natural Reserve, this one of a kind ecosystem in the United States.”
New Lawmakers, New Values
Jason is optimistic that a new crop of lawmakers, such as Olivia Glenn of the State Park Service, will be more willing to bring attention to problems in the area and call for action. Social media is another tool that Jason and the PPA use to highlight what is going on. “Through social media, we can try to share why these places are so important, and maybe that will start to spread,” he states. “Preserving these places, what we have left, I think is critically important.”
The Kirkwood Cohansey
Another important aspect of the Pines is the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, which covers approximately 3,000 square miles and provides clean drinking water for a million people. Since the aquifer is so susceptible to ORV-related pollution, Jason says all necessary steps have to be taken to ensure the water remains clean. “We have to be very careful with it, even more careful than other areas because there are no buffering agents in our soil. It’s just sand,” he says.
Celebrating a Victory Lap
Jason also took some time to comment on another ongoing environmental battle in New Jersey that seems to be turning in Mother Nature’s favor: The shuttered BL England Power Plant in Upper Township, Cape May County announced it would not repower with natural gas, throwing the proposed controversial South Jersey Gas Pipeline into question. “It’s up to us to make sure they are held accountable not just for their users, but for what we allow in the Pine Barrens,” he explains. “If we allow a gas pipeline, maybe an oil pipeline can be built down the road. For anyone who is concerned about catastrophic climate change, this is where we have some power. We can put an end to fossil fuel development and infrastructure in the Pine Barrens, and this is the start, I think a very positive start.”
If you would like to find out more about the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and how you can contribute, please visit their website at http://www.pinelandsalliance.org
Thanks to Ryan Hosey for writing this accompanying article
*Breaking News – The Jeep Jamboree that was scheduled for March was cancelled. Thanks to the people who made the decision. Recent fire and flooding damage left the area far too precarious to sustain such an event*