GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — To know the Pinelands is to want to protect them.
That, at least, is one of the goals of the annual Pinelands Short Course. The 25th edition of the course was held Saturday at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. It was sponsored by the college and the New Jersey Pinelands Commission.
The day included 36 different programs about the Pine Barrens. There were live owls, field trips, classes and lectures on the unique ecosytem that includes the Pine Barrens tree frog and a host of rare flora and fauna. Bees and white cedar trees were hot topics this year. Participants also could buy artwork and books about the Pinelands or a CD of some of the folksy music the region has produced.
The day included plenty of history and even some legends — as in the Jersey Devil. It was all designed to interest and educate the estimated 400 people who showed up.
“We want to raise awareness of the Pinelands and have more people spread the word. The more they spread the word, the more they will want to protect it for future generations,” said Paul Leakan, communications officer with the Pinelands Commission.
The day also included classes and credits for school teachers. Joel Mott, public programs specialist with the commission, said the hope is teachers will take their newly acquired knowledge back to their classrooms and teach a whole new generation about the Pinelands.
Theresa Lettman, director of monitoring programs for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, a Burlington County-based watchdog group that seeks to protect the 1.1 million-acre national preserve, fully buys into the goal. Lettman said the region is under pressure to accept more commercial development. Lettman said as people move into the region, they want chain stores and malls within a short drive of their homes. This pressure has increased as the price of gasoline has risen and some have to drive more than 30 minutes to such places, she said.
Commercial development threatens goals of the group, such as protecting the pristine watershed that holds an estimated 17 trillion gallons of water in the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer. Such development can create more polluted stormwater and impervious coverage, such as pavement, and take away from the character of rural areas.
“That’s why it's good the Pinelands Commission has events such as this. You’re telling people what you’re protecting. The more people know what the Pinelands (Comprehensive Management) Plan means, the more they want to protect it and join in when they see threats,” Lettman said.
The day also included a historical perspective on why the region was preserved with federal legislation in 1978 followed by state legislation, the Pinelands Preservation Act, in 1979. The reasons ranged from a proposed airport to the development of Atlantic City casinos, Leakan said. In the 1960s, a large airport and new city was proposed for the region. There was also a plan for an oil pipeline through the region.
“It was to be a town of 250,000 people. The Pinelands as we know it would have been obliterated,” Leakan said.
Voter approval in 1976 for casino gambling in Atlantic City also raised alarms. New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne got involved.
“It all led to a groundswell of support,” Leakan said.
Since then, Leakan said 50 percent of the region has been permanently preserved and 80 percent of the growth is happening in the areas targeted for growth, where there is already infrastructure to support it.
Many attendees already knew the basic history and could hone their knowledge by attending lectures and classes on particular issues such as southern pine beetles, Revolutionary War skirmishes, rare Pine Barrens plants, or the role of fire in preserving the ecology.
“The Pinelands is a fire-adaptive ecosystem. Some species depend on fire. We suppress fire and it’s important to let natural fires take their course,” said Amy Karpati, director of conservation science for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
Karpati said intentional burning has been used to open up the tree canopy and foster the growth of a number of rare plants that rely on fire.
She also talked about the tea-colored water in the Pinelands and how Philadelphia and New York City once coveted it before the area was preserved.
“It’s tea-colored due to high iron and tannins from vegetation,” Karpati said. “The great water of the Pinelands is a major reason why the Pinelands were protected.”
Much of the event was held at Stockton’s Campus Center, which seems to dovetail with commission goals. The center is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, building that uses 40 percent less water and 30 percent less energy than standard construction.
“Stockton is considered New Jersey’s environmental education college, so it makes sense we’re here,” Mott said.
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