Inquirer Editorial: Christie bullied Pinelands panel to get his way

New Jersey's Pinelands Commission was once a respected, independent steward of a forest that filters the drinking water for millions in the region. But political manipulation has turned it into an ineffective agency that looks the other way when the preserve's delicate balance is threatened.

The latest annual report of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance rightly notes that the forest is facing its greatest threat in decades because the commission simply is not doing its job. The panel's abdication is astounding given national concern over the lead-laden water that is threatening the health of Flint, Mich., residents.

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The commission has become so spineless that it didn't even react after its executive director contradicted the panel's earlier denial of an application to locate a pipeline within the preserve. That opened the door for a second application. Neither pipeline would serve local communities, but both would undermine the Pinelands preservation plan.

Environmentalists fear a corrupted plan would unravel a carefully crafted state and federal safety net while setting a precedent for developers to build within the preserve.

The commission appears to have been beaten into submission by the bullying tactics of Gov. Christie, who has replaced board members who supported the preservation plan with people more willing to do his bidding. That's unfortunate, but any commissioner afraid to stand up for the forest and the water beneath it isn't really serving the public's interest.

The commission appears to be taking its lead from Trenton, which has been less than enthusiastic about protecting the state's water quality lately. The Department of Environmental Protection has yet to release a long-overdue water management plan that should highlight the need for stronger Pinelands protections, not weaker ones.

The DEP also is sitting on a plan to regulate the use of all-terrain and four-wheel-drive vehicles within the 1.1 million-acre forest. For too long, the state and the Pinelands Commission have looked the other way when vehicles pounded down soil, making it impervious, disturbing wetlands, ripping up vegetation, and causing land erosion and sediment to build up in rivers and streams.

The state estimates that reckless drivers cost it about $1 million a year in damage on lands taxpayers pay to protect, not to mention the cost to remove all the trash the off-roaders leave in their wakes.

Citizens concerned about the future of their water and the forest that filters it in New Jersey have scheduled an unprecedented march in Trenton on March 14 to draw attention to environmental threats to the Pinelands.

Christie, finally concentrating on his paid job after a two-year romance in pursuit of the presidency, should take a fresh look at his home state and consider whether the legacy he is building is what he wants the people of New Jersey to remember about his time as governor. He should respect the responsibility handed down to him by past governors and protect the Pinelands and the region's water supply.