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Along the hotly disputed Pinelands pipeline's path, hopes, fears, and doubts

Spend a day following the proposed gas pipeline's path through the Pinelands, and you discover that mention of the pipeline evokes conflicting responses inside the 1.1 million-acre expanse of jack pine and scrub oak forest.

America's most densely populated state becomes a vast swath of rustic green in the Pinelands of South Jersey,  but  "beautiful" does not describe Route 49.

"Keep it Clean & Green!" the sign admonishes.

It is beneath the shoulder of this plain, two-lane slice of asphalt through the Pinelands of Cumberland County, and a few more roads in Atlantic and Cape May Counties, that South Jersey Gas hopes to lay a hotly disputed, 22-mile-long natural gas pipeline to serve an electrical generation plant on Great Egg Harbor River. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission's board could decide the route's fate at its Feb. 24 meeting.

To the many conservationists and environmentalists fighting the pipeline -- it would pass beneath 10 miles of a state-protected forest where such utilities are barred, to serve a power plant they say is not needed -- a dead deer might seem an apt metaphor for man's collision with nature.

But spend a day driving the route's roadways and you discover that mention of the pipeline evokes conflicting responses inside this 1.1 million acre expanse of jack pine and scrub oak forest, where graveyards, gas stations, luncheonettes, trailer parks, power lines, houses, villages and nearly a half-million people share space with deer and the secluded, root-beer colored creeks that twist through dark cedar groves, tumble over dams, and widen into sunlit lakes before seeping into New Jersey's coastal bays.

About a mile east of Cossaboon, 57-year-old Kathy Carole was backing a pickup truck onto her late brother-in-law's wooded property fronting Route 49. Retired from working at a nursing hospital, she said she welcomed a gas pipeline, since heating oil here is so expensive.

"I pay $4,000 in [property] taxes," Fisher said. "A buddy of mine in Atco pays $6,500" on a similar property.

Upper Township receives $6.3 million from the state each year in energy receipts taxes. Under the current funding formula it will continue to do so whether the power plant is in operation or not.

Thomas Oakes, 72, longtime owner of the Holtz boat works along Tuckahoe Road in Marmora, said he supported keeping the power plant open because his taxes were half those in nearby Atlantic County.

As for the pipeline, "It's supposed to go pretty far underground through here," he said, gesturing from his office to the Cedar Swamp River and marshlands – part of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge – that borders his five-acre marina.

"But it's a shame they couldn't have put in a secondary pipe so people along the way could tap into it."

About two miles east of the yard the pipe would turn north off Tuckahoe Road near Lilac Lane in Beesley's Point past the six-house residential development that Ralph Baum built 30 years ago.

"It'll come down Ocean Woods Road and go right through those woods," said Baum, 66, pointing one block south and then east from his newly tilled vegetable garden, where he'll soon plant tomatoes and cucumbers.

His taxes are half those in Somers Point, said Baum, and the prevailing westerly winds carry the plant's cinders and ash away from his home toward Ocean City, he said, "so it's been a great neighbor."

But along North Shore Road, which ends at a short sand beach that curves up to the plant in Beesley's Point, Kathy and Steve Heldt are "ambivalent," she said, about the plant and pipeline.

"We should definitely move away from coal," she said.

"And it's good for jobs," he said of the plant. "But gas [fired] is still a source of pollution."

She nodded. "I have to say I'm not that knowledgeable about all the issues," she said. "But it's important to protect the Pinelands."