Following pressure from environmentalists, Gov. Phil Murphy has replaced the Pinelands Commission chairman who voted in favor of two South Jersey pipelines in 2017.

Chairman Sean Earlen is being switched out with former Pemberton Township councilman Richard Prickett on the 15-member board tasked with protecting New Jersey’s 1.1 million-acre natural reserve.

“Richard’s experience serving on the commission, coupled with his extensive background in environmental science, make him an exceptional individual to serve in this critical leadership position,” Murphy said in a statement.

Earlen could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

His replacement comes after groups called on Murphy to appoint new Pinelands commissioners whom they consider more environmentally friendly. A petition with 5,000 signatures was delivered to the governor last year.

Earlen was the commission’s Burlington County representative before being appointed chairman by then-Gov. Chris Christie in 2016. As chairman, he approved two controversial pipelines.

Construction has already begun on the 28-mile Southern Reliability Link pipeline, which will run through parts of Ocean County, despite it being tied up in court. The now-dead South Jersey Gas pipeline would have brought natural gas from Maurice River Township to Upper Township, traveling through 10 miles of the Pine Barrens in Cumberland and Cape May counties.

Earlier this year, the leader of the Burlington County Board of Freeholders said the board planned to investigate removing Earlen as the county’s representative on the Pinelands Commission, according to the Burlington County Times. Earlen began serving as the Burlington County Republican Chairman in December.

Prickett, who joined the commission in 2012 as its Burlington County representative, voted against both pipeline projects.

Environmental groups applauded his appointment.

New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel called the move “long overdue.”

“This is the first real step Gov. Murphy has taken to protect the Pinelands,” he said in a statement. “Rick Prickett has been dedicated to protecting the Pinelands. He has always voted the right way and put Pinelands protection first.”

Prickett previously served as a trustee for the nonprofit Whitesbog Preservation Trust and taught biology, chemistry and environmental science in the Lakewood School District before retiring in 2006.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, praised Prickett’s “devotion to the Pines.”

“Rick is a great pick to lead the commission and initiate a clear break from the Christie era of undermining the Pinelands ecosystem,” O’Malley said in a statement.

Prickett is the second new appointee to the commission from Murphy since he took office.

In January, the governor nominated Ocean County environmental activist Theresa Lettman to replace the commission’s longest-serving member, 93-year-old Candace McKee Ashum. Each board member serves a staggered three-year term.

Contact: 609-272-7258 Twitter @AvalonZoppo

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