New Jersey is on the verge of abandoning stewardship of its cherished Pinelands, the largest natural expanse between Washington, D.C., and Boston.

Under pressure from Gov. Christie, the forests' guardians are preparing to undermine the Pinelands charter so 22 miles of 24-inch pipeline carrying natural gas can cut through the woods. Once the charter is weakened, the pristine forest will be open to development that endangers the 17.7 trillion gallons of clean water the pines protect.

The natural gas pipeline would feed an old Cape May County oil and coal plant that is so filthy the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered it shut down. Its owners are hoping to retool the B.L. England plant for natural gas so it can continue to make them money. They'll probably get what they want, but the cost to the region will be irreversible damage to the forest.

The Pinelands management plan allows gas pipelines only when it is "intended to primarily serve the needs of the Pinelands." The coal plant is outside the protected area, but it will be a cash conduit for utility and power plant owners.

For two years, environmentalists have argued that once the rules are broken, others will try to deviate from the plan. They were proven right just a year ago when another proposal for a pipeline came along. The second pipeline, which would cut through Burlington and Ocean Counties, has also drawn public opposition.

Both pipelines could be rerouted around the forest. But rather than take on that expense, their advocates are banking on their ties to Christie. His Board of Public Utilities appears ready to rubber-stamp the pipelines. But the Pinelands Commission, the front line of defense for the sensitive forest, has been a hard sell.

The commission didn't play along three years ago when the pipeline proposal was made to them. Christie subsequently dumped members who acted responsibly to protect the forest and the region's drinking water. Their replacements will likely be more pliable. But fortunately the next commission vote will be in public.

The Christie-packed commission has tried to avoid transparency. Its executive director claimed she had the authority to unilaterally grant permission for the pipeline, which she then announced in a perfunctory statement without explanation. Environmentalists sued and the state Appellate Court ruled in November that the commission had to stop hiding and make an official decision.

If the commissioners are ashamed of what they apparently are about to do, they should examine the case more thoroughly and order the utilities to route the pipelines around the forest. If they're worried about retaliation by Christie, they can postpone a decision until after he leaves office in 2018. The next governor may be more likely to follow the will of public, just as the last several have.

In fact, four of Christie's predecessors - Democrats Brendan Byrne and Jim Florio, and Republicans Thomas Kean and Christie Whitman - wrote an impassioned letter imploring Christie to back off. They understand what he apparently does not: Rules to protect the Pinelands and the water below it must not be ignored.