NORTHFIELD, N.J. - A busload of concerned nature lovers fanned out inside a strip mall in this Atlantic County town on Wednesday, ready to spread the word about New Jersey's "last great wilderness" and to peacefully protest a plan to lay some pipe there.
The 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Preserve they were talking about encompasses parts of seven counties, mostly in South Jersey. Environmental groups and at least four former New Jersey governors believe that Gov. Chris Christie and other elected officials are trying to plant a candidate on the Pinelands Commission who will tilt the vote and approve construction of a 22-mile natural-gas pipeline there.
The 25 or so passengers who showed up at state Sen. Jim Whelan's office here had been traveling to legislative offices throughout New Jersey in the red, white and blue "Bus for Progress," and were there to give Whelan a friendly earful. He wasn't there, so they told his aide.
"Water is life," Rosemary Bagwell, of Monmouth County, repeated outside the office. "We don't need the gas."
Today, the New Jersey Senate could vote on whether to appoint Christie's nominee, Robert Barr, to the 15-member commission. If approved, Barr, an Ocean City resident and president of the city's Democratic committee, would replace Robert Jackson, of Middle Township, Cape May County, whose term had expired.
Jackson, a former bait-and-tackle-shop owner, was one of the dissenting votes when the Pinelands Commission deadlocked in January 2014 with a 7-7 vote and one recusal. Barr works for state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, one of the pipeline's biggest proponents, and critics of the proposal say the fix is in.
In October, Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee that it was a "risky proposition" for anyone to assume that he's an automatic "yes" vote. He declined to comment when reached last week. Jackson said he stands by his vote.
"I know Cape May County needs jobs, but I swore an oath to protect the Pinelands," said Jackson, 60. "I thought by doing my due diligence and really reading this thing and doing the science, they would see I was doing my job."
The proposed 24-inch pipeline would deliver natural gas through portions of Cumberland and Atlantic counties to the BL England power plant on Beesley's Point, in northern Cape May County. Currently, the plant is coal-fired and is expected to shut down if a source for natural gas can't be found. Proponents of the pipeline say that it will make the plant burn cleaner while providing jobs for Cape May County, which has some of the highest unemployment in the state.
"It is not in the pristine or center of the Pinelands," Van Drew said. "It is planned to run along the shoulder of a state highway."
Van Drew said that he's been disappointed in what he calls "mean-spirited" attacks on Barr, a Stockton University graduate who has cerebral palsy.
"He is an honest, hardworking intellectual," Van Drew said.
A Christie spokesman did not return requests for comment. Mark Magyar, policy director for the New Jersey Senate Democrats, said that Senate President Stephen Sweeney also believes that the pipeline would not "cause irreparable harm to the Pinelands."
Critics say the pipeline also would run through protected Pinelands forest area, violating the commission's own rules. Approving a private pipeline, critics say, would set a precedent, and that's why the commission was formed in 1979. Opponents of the pipeline also fear that it would promote the fracking of natural gas elsewhere in the U.S.
The Bus for Progress plans to roll into Trenton today for the hearing as well.
"We're in the middle of the most densely populated state and we have this wilderness oasis," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "That's why it's so important."