Free Advice From Five Former Governors

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by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

If New Jersey, the most crowded state in the country, doesn’t pay attention to open space and clean air and water, “we can forget about creating any more jobs.”

So said former Governor Tom Kean last October when asked to provide advice to Governor Christie on the environment of this state we’re in.

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Kean pointed out that a critical element in attracting and retaining employers and a skilled workforce is keeping the Garden State a desirable place to live and work. That means clean water and air, and open spaces that provide natural beauty and protect property values.

So what’s New Jersey’s 55th governor doing to protect our environment?

Certainly Governor Christie faces huge challenges, most notably the state’s poor fiscal health. To his credit, he is tackling some of the thorniest and most difficult issues in our state’s history. His recent State of the State address, unfortunately, made no mention of the environment, missing an opportunity to highlight the key role a healthy environment plays in our state’s economy.

All told, five of Governor Christie’s predecessors, including Tom Kean, strongly advocated for a clean and healthy environment at New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s 50th anniversary dinner in October. Governor Christie would be wise to heed their words.

Protecting our natural resources is always cheaper than trying to clean them up after they’re polluted or lost. A case in point: New Jersey forests provide an estimated $2.2 billion per year in ecological services like cleaning and filtering drinking water, cleaning air pollution and absorbing and moderating heat. Wetlands contribute another $10.6 billion per year in water filtration and flood mitigation. These numbers would logically be included in any intelligent cost/benefit analysis of development and environmental regulation.

However, several of Governor Christie’s actions appear rooted in the pervasive myth that a strong economy and a healthy environment are at odds.

Former Governor James Florio believes the state does not have to choose between the two. “We’re not going to have one without the other,” he said at the October dinner. “We have to take that as a mission.”

But Governor Christie’s Red Tape Commission’s recommended regulatory “reform” bills would reduce environmental protections, an indication that the governor is going in the wrong direction.

Former Governor James McGreevey emphasized the importance of the state not backing away from its responsibility to protect water resources in the Highlands. “If we don’t protect the Highlands, we have not practiced responsible stewardship,” said McGreevey.

Governor Christie has alluded to weakening protections for the Highlands Region – which provides over two-thirds of our residents with water -  including repealing the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act. He recently proposed several individuals for appointments to the Highlands Council who opposed the very law the Council is meant to implement!

Governor Christie also proposes to eliminate the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission, a  highly efficient regional planning agency that brings all sorts of environmental and economic benefits to our state. Without this agency and its comprehensive water supply protections, it’s likely that central Jersey will experience a decline in water quality. Is this a risk worth taking when, in fact, there is not even a cost savings to be had by eliminating the Commission?

On the plus side, Governor Christie’s 10-point plan to clean up Barnegat Bay, if implemented, is a step in the right direction. Reducing nutrients in fertilizers and repairing state-owned stormwater basins make sense – and cents! After all, cleaning up Barnegat Bay contributes to the immensely valuable Jersey shore tourism industry.

The same voters who elected Governor Christie in November 2009 also endorsed a bond issue to save open space. In that spirit, both New Jersey’s Green Acres and farmland preservation programs recently announced new rounds of land preservation funding.  But with periodic borrowing creating uncertainty about the future of funding, Governor Christie has the opportunity to create a lasting legacy by establishing a permanent and stable source for open space, watershed, farmland and historic preservation funding.

“Right now, we are on track to become the first state in the union to run out of open space,” said former Governor Christine Todd Whitman at the dinner. “I love New Jersey being first in a lot of things, but that’s not where we want to be.”

Science tells us that the best way to protect threatened species is to protect where they live – their habitat.  But a recent Department of Environmental Protection decision allows for the construction of a Walmart in Ocean County, on top of the habitat of threatened Northern pine snakes. Pine snake habitat offsite will be preserved to mitigate for the onsite habitat destruction, but that still reduces the pine snake population – merely to enable construction of another big box store.  The fact that the state is allowing this “swap” for a project with no compelling public benefit undermines sound wildlife science and our environmental policies and regulations.

On an equally dark note, Governor Christie cut more than $400 million from the state’s clean energy programs, including those that fund energy efficiency projects and renewable energy installations. These programs support small businesses, wean us from fossil fuels and help create jobs. The cuts would harm both the economy and the environment, a tragic case of killing two birds with one stone!

“An administration is known for what it stands for,” noted former Governor Brendan Byrne, who overcame tremendous odds to preserve the Pine Barrens. “We were worried about the environment, we stood for it, we made our mark on it and were happy to have the legacy.”

I hope Governor Christie will adjust course during his next three years and demonstrate that he understands what New Jerseyans already know – that a robust economy depends on a clean and healthy environment.

If you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s (NJCF) website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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