Written by Matt Skoufalos
The trouble with environmental victories, according to Carleton Montgomery, is that they are often fleeting.
"When you’re talking about a resource that’s based on land and soil, if you lose it, it’s gone forever," said Montgomery, Executive Director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of the New Jersey pine barrens.
"When you win something, it’s not forever," he said; "it’s provisional."
Such are the muted emotional spoils of victory after what has been a months-long battle by regional conservationists against a proposal to open up one of New Jersey's wildest spaces to a 22-mile natural gas pipeline.
The $90 million project would have passed through the Maurice River, Estell Manor, and Upper Township communities in Atlantic and Cape May Counties, replacing the coal-burning fuel that powers the BL England electric generation facility in Beesley's Point with natural gas.
But the proposed route of the pipeline would have violated the integrity of a 34-year-old public plan for the wild spaces that Montgomery said were "not to be used for infrastructure" and would create "all kids of risks for the natural areas along the way."
Montgomery said that however carefully planned, and whatever the material benefits of such projects, in terms of revenues, jobs, or corporate profits, approving the project could have opened up other green spaces to future private interests.
"Some of the harms you're looking at are long-term harms to the integrity of a system," he said. "Every time you disrespect that system, you make it weaker."
The project, which reached a 7-7 stalemate*, was a source of tremendous public opposition, including from Patch readers, and not least of all because of an order from the state attorney general's office ordering one of the commissioners, Ed Lloyd, to recuse himself on the grounds of a perceived conflict of interest.
It's something that has Montgomery scratching his head, too.
"I want to discover the facts because I feel it’s a really important issue for the Pinelands to find out exactly what happened and why," he said. "The procedure used to get him not to vote was so improper."
Nonetheless, Montgomery is grateful for the public support on behalf of a cause that he said demonstrates that there is a way for man and nature to coexist even in the most densely populated state in the nation.
"Sometimes that kind of long-term, cumulative impact is very hard to communicate and get people excited about," he said, "but a pipeline is a very tangible thing.
"We certainly have met a lot of people that we didn’t know before because they got engaged on this issue and that’s great."
Montgomery encourages all the new supporters of his organization to "stay vigilant," because he expects additional challenges from the power companies.
"I’m sure SJ Gas is huddling with the people who own the power plant and making a decision about their strategy," he said. "People have to stay vigilant, whether its this project or the next wacky idea that comes along."