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We have a long way to go to protect the environment in N.J.

earth121809_optBY MICHELE S. BYERS
THE STATE WE'RE IN

The first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970, 40 years ago. We've come a long way since then. But even in this state we're in, where many conservation supporters work hard to protect our environment, we have a long way to go.

Just last week, the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU), under the new Christie Administration, approved the sale of 1,350 acres of environmentally sensitive lands in Millville, Cumberland County, for intensive sprawl development. The state Green Acres program had offered to purchase the land for conservation. The state's offer was deemed financially superior, in the best interest of the ratepayers, and clearly better for the environment. But, in spite of these overwhelming benefits, it was rejected in favor of the development proposal.

When Earth Day was established, the economic benefits of environmental protection weren't well understood and accepted like they are today. Yet with the BPU decision — when the environment, the economy and the public interest all pointed to denial of the development sale — politics ruled the day and the sale went forward in spite of science, economics and public trust.

By now you may be thinking that this is another "only in New Jersey" story. You may be right!

Back in 1970, no one knew whether Earth Day was the start of something big or just a fad. Charles R. DeBevoise, then president of New Jersey Conservation Foundation, wondered about the event's future, writing:

"The age of ecology is upon us - I must say it's about time. The current wave of public interest is gratifying for those of us who have fought battle after battle; the former lunatic fringe has suddenly become sanctified. Yet, I am concerned about the future. Earth Day took place April 22, 1970. Now what? Will the storm blow over?"

Looking back 40 years, we know the storm didn't blow over. The environmental activism of the 1970s produced the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Acts. In New Jersey, the Pinelands Protection Act was passed, along with a slew of protective environmental laws.

These days, look for Earth Day events in parks, schools, nature centers and senior citizen centers everywhere. Those who attended the first Earth Day teach-ins are now middle aged and then some. They've taught their children about the importance of caring for our environment, and may now be teaching their grandchildren.

Still, Charlie DeBevoise was right to be concerned about the future. He understood that Earth Day wasn't a goal unto itself, but a call to action because the threats to our environment would continue as fiercely as ever.

The BPU decision on the Millville property came one week and a day before Earth Day 2010. The natural resource value of this property is so high that the public has invested millions of dollars to preserve nearly 10,000 adjacent acres. Seen on a map, the site is smack in the middle of these 10,000 acres of protected open space. And the proposed development area contains more critical habitat for threatened and endangered species than any other unprotected site in the entire southern half of New Jersey!

The Atlantic City Electric Company, however, wanted to sell the property to a developer for the construction of over 900 age-restricted units and a golf course.

The BPU's approval, in this day and age, makes one wonder just how much has really changed in the 40 years since the first Earth Day. And with a new administration acutely focused on finances, it is baffling how the BPU could have accepted the lower bid.

The BPU's decision thwarts three decades of effort to stop suburban sprawl in this area and protect the public's investment in surrounding conservation land. It is also a poignant reminder that even 40 years after the first Earth Day, Charlie DeBevoise's admonition about the future is as crucial as ever!

Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it <!-- document.write( '</' ); document.write( 'span>' ); //--> This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it <!-- document.write( '</' ); document.write( 'span>' ); //--> This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it <!-- document.write( '</' ); document.write( 'span>' ); //--> for more information about conserving New Jersey's precious land and natural resources, and consult the New Jersey Conservation Foundation's website at njconservation.org.

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