Environmental organizations have prodded the administration of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy for months to replace members of the Pinelands Commission, a body they believed bowed too easily to pipeline companies and developers during Gov. Chris Christie’s administration
Now a full year into office, Murphy took the first steps in that direction last week with the nominations of two stalwart environmentalists, Theresa Lettman and Kelly Mooij.
Lettman was a longtime member of the nonprofit Pinelands Preservation Alliance. Mooij, an environmental lawyer, is vice president of government relations for New Jersey Audubon, also a nonprofit. Both need state Senate approval.
Lettman would replace Candace McKee Ashmun, one of the original commissioners appointed in 1979, who has been viewed favorably by environmental groups. However, Mooij would replace Gary Quinn, a builder and developer. Mooij’s appointment could help tip the panel’s leaning, observers say.
The commission has 15 members. Seven are appointed by the governor, seven by the seven counties that have area in the Pinelands, and one by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The terms of all seven gubernatorial appointees have expired, meaning Murphy could make additional replacements.
Though it is a state agency, the commission’s main role is to protect the Pinelands National Reserve, 1.1 million acres spanning 56 municipalities and accounting for 22 percent of the state’s land.
In recent years, the commission has drawn the ire of environmental groups by approving two natural gas pipelines, a 22-mile line planned by South Jersey Gas to connect with a yet-to-be-built power plant and a 12.1-mile line to be built by New Jersey Natural Gas through the national reserve and a military base within it. Lawsuits have been filed to stop both pipelines.
“With these two nominations, you’ll see a reinvigorated commission that can get beyond the pipeline issues and look at all the other issues that need to be addressed,” said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
Two of the newer commissioners, Jordan P. Howell, appointed by Camden County, and William Pikolycky, by Cape May County, are seen as friendly to environmental organizations' priorities.
The Trump administration, through the secretary of the interior, also can fill an open seat. The previous federally appointed commissioner, Frank Hays, died in March 2017 and has not been replaced.
Montgomery said that going forward, the commission can address issues such as protection of the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer, a 17-trillion-gallon reserve of fresh water that lies just a few feet under the sandy soil of the Pinelands. The aquifer supplies 90 percent of the water in the Pinelands' streams, rivers and wetlands.
The aquifer has been over-pumped in some areas for use in development, Montgomery said. Though development slowed during the recession, he said, it could pick up again.