Environment

Transforming the garden state into the pipeline state

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wants to run a pipeline through America's oldest natural reserve, the Pinelands.

Opponents of the natural gas pipeline planned to run through the ecologically sensitive Pinelands region of New Jersey protest at a meeting of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission [Wayne Parry/AP]

Whenever someone asks me where I'm from, I tell them, "I'm from the most beautiful place you've never heard of - and it's in New Jersey." That usually elicits a puzzled look, since, despite its Garden State designation, Jersey isn't exactly known for its natural beauty (at least not in the popular imagination). But once I explain that I was raised in the Pinelands, things fall into place. The Pinelands National Reserve is the first national reserve in the United States and spans 1.1 million acres (around 445,000 hectares) across seven counties.

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It takes me about three hours to get from New York City's Penn Station to my parents' house, and the view on the way down is so intoxicatingly gorgeous, it'll break your heart if you're not used to it. You'll travel through silent seas of scaly, blue-green pine trees and rattle down dirt roads the colour of bone china beneath the bluest sky imaginable; it's so quiet you can hear deer crunching through the underbrush and crickets singing in the black tea-tinted cedar swamps. It's one of the few truly wild places left on the US East Coast, the largest open space between Richmond, Virginia and Boston, Massachusetts - a wholly unique UNESCO biosphere, and an ecological jewel that 43 endangered species call home.

So, of course, New Jersey's controversial Republican governor, Chris Christie, wants to run a pipeline through it.

Last month, it was announced that the Pinelands Commission - the federally supported body that oversees public policy and development projects in the reserve - has approved a new 30-mile natural gas pipeline to run from Chesterfield Township to Manchester Township, right through the protected wilderness of the Pinelands.

The thought of my dad working on these treacherous pipes that will scar the land we've called home for decades makes my heart hurt, but blue-collar, working-class families like mine don't always have the luxury of to choosing where their paycheques come from.

 

There has been significant community pushback against New Jersey Natural Gas' so-called "Southern Reliability Line", as well as against the South Jersey Gas Cape Atlantic Reliability Project, another pipeline that Christie approved earlier this year that will span 22 miles and also cut directly through the Pinelands.

In addition to protesting the pipelines themselves, a loose coalition of local conservationists, community members, and the New Jersey Sierra Club have condemned Christie's unwavering support for the projects; at a recent public hearing, a woman held a sign reading, "One Jersey Devil Is Enough!" in a clear reference to the perpetually embattled governor (and a hat tip to the Pinelands' own homegrown cryptozoological mascot, the Jersey Devil).

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Outside of New Jersey, there's been little media coverage of the pipeline controversies, or of Christie's determination to invest in fossil fuel. His folly may damage the Pines' fragile ecosystem for what many critics say is an ultimately unnecessary infrastructure project that goes against the stated mission of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, as set down by the federal Pinelands Protection Act of 1979: to protect the land and its people, and ensure that any approved projects hold a demonstrable benefit to those who call the Pines home.

Even when Christie went viral for his misadventures on sports radio, at a recent Chicago Cubs game, or even during his "Beachgate" scandal, in which he used a public beach for a family vacation during the state government shutdown, no one asked him why he'd fought so hard for the right to ravage our wilderness, or why, back in 2014, he thought it was appropriate to reshuffle the Pinelands Commission membership and stack the deck in favour of the earlier pipeline.

We haven't seen any news anchors grill him on what will happen if either of these pipelines leaks natural gas into the Pines' forests, creeks, and swamps - or if the violent process of putting in the pipes will impact the 17-trillion gallon Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer that lies beneath southern New Jersey and provides water for all of the Pinelands. If the well water that comes out of my grandma's faucet starts catching fire, can we depend on Chris Christie to help?

Given that he's been pushing for this since 2014, signs point to "no".

Donald Trump's ham-fisted attacks on our natural resources, national parks, and the land itself have become a fixture of his regime, but are often overshadowed by his perpetual generation of new controversies, feuds, gaffes, and nightmarish policy gambits. Even if he has abandoned his side gig as chief bootlicker to the current commander-in-chief, Christie's environmental policies fall right in line with the administration that has so publicly spurned him. 

One wonders if the fact that the majority of Pinelands residents are rural, working-class folks with a median income about $10,000 less than the New Jersey average has kept Christie from straining his heartstrings over their plight.

The national news media may not care that much about what's happening out in the woods, but the people who consider it home certainly do. I was especially curious about how my dad - a no-nonsense outdoorsman who grew up in the Pines and has worked construction in and around South Jersey since he was 18 - feels about the pipelines.

I already know his thoughts on Christie (and most of his opinions on that subject are unprintable here), but was surprised to find out that he wasn't as vehemently opposed to the project as I'd expected. In his estimation (and as the natural gas companies keep insisting), bringing more natural gas to the Pines could help cut down on coal and oil consumption. As for the environmental impact, he's of the mind that the hue and cry over the project are misguided - or rather, too little, too late.

"So it was okay to cut down the woods to build their houses, wiping out whole ecosystems?" he responded when I asked him about those protesting the pipeline, his voice edged with anger. "It's already ruined. There's no sense to it."

And in a stroke of bittersweet irony, it's almost certain that he'll end up working on its construction. "Who do you think is putting in the pipe?" he said, and then named his construction union. The thought of my dad working on these treacherous pipes that will scar the land we've called home for decades makes my heart hurt, but blue-collar, working-class families like mine don't always have the luxury of choosing where their paycheques come from. As he said, he "might as well get [his] piece of the pie".

He, more than anyone, taught me how to appreciate and respect the wilderness in all of its terrible beauty. Maybe I should ask him to give Chris Christie a call.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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