In the mid-1960s, a young writer newly hired at the New Yorker magazine wandered off into the New Jersey Pine Barrens with topographic maps, a beat-up old car, a tent to sleep in if it got too late, and a desire to write about "real people, real places."
John McPhee's 1968 book, The Pine Barrens, made famous what was then a little-known wilderness area, sparked an environmental movement, and inspired a New Jersey governor to put a development halt on what worked out to be more than a fifth of the state's landmass.
"Until I read John's book, I didn't know a lot about the Pinelands," said former Gov. Brendan Byrne, widely credited with preserving the forest. "If I hadn't been in office, I don't think it would have happened. I'm not sure I can say that about anything else I did."
The book, the Barrens, and how its more than one million acres came to be saved through a long political fight to turn it into a federal wilderness area in the late 1970s were recounted and dissected at a panel discussion at Princeton University on Sunday afternoon involving McPhee, Byrne, and former Gov. Jim Florio, a young congressman at the time.
Byrne, who is in his early 80s, told of how he came to read the book while in office and immediately called the Department of Environmental Protection, telling officials there to put a hold on any developments in the Pinelands. When he was informed that was unconstitutional, he tried an executive order that was quickly challenged in court. Byrne recounted how the chief justice of the state Supreme Court at the time, Richard J. Hughes, warned him that he was going to lose in court and that he had better find another avenue.
"He would call me up and say, 'When are you going to get that legislation through?' " Byrne said. "I told him, 'I'm working on it.' There was a lot of resistance from the people who owned the land because I restrained their ability to develop their land."
The Legislature eventually agreed to make the Pinelands a national reserve after a fiery campaign by Byrne and environmentalists.
McPhee was on hand to watch the political developments up close, having been a regular tennis partner of Byrne's beginning in the mid-1970s, though he says he never advocated one way or the other during those matches. And the idea that he might have saved the Pine Barrens, as many environmentalists contend, seems overblown to the Princeton professor.
"I am very touched and flattered [that Byrne] would say" the book inspired him, McPhee said in an interview Sunday. "My goal is not to pass judgment but to lay this all out for people and let them make their own judgment."
McPhee's descriptions of cranberry bogs, getting lost on sandy, crisscrossing roads, and the colorful characters known as Pineys who live off the land continue to define the place that environmentalists and politicians alike maintain has changed little in the more than three decades since the wilderness area was protected.
Environmentalists maintain there is constant pressure from business interests to turn the land over to development as New Jersey grows closer to running out of vacant space.
Controversy recently erupted over plans to build a Wal-Mart store in Toms River within the Pinelands boundaries, said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance
"There are plants and wildlife found nowhere else but the New Jersey Pine Barrens," he said at Sunday's panel discussion. "You can't just pass a law and say, 'We're done.' You have to keep working at it every day."
For McPhee, The Pine Barrens remains a solid seller, still taught in New Jersey classrooms and read by just about anybody who ever spent any time wandering among the cedar swamps and pygmy pines.
Now in his early 70s, he still remembers fondly driving back and forth across the Pine Barrens with his topographic maps, marking off where civilization began and the forest ended.
He said he recently returned there to see what had become of the home of one of the characters featured in the book. The cabin was gone, replaced by a cranberry bog.
"If that's the most significant change we've seen, that's very encouraging," McPhee said.