Bipartisan majorities want New Jersey to protect its Highlands and Pinelands regions, according to a public opinion poll that the Pinelands Preservation Alliance helped commission. The poll has important lessons for political leaders and advocates for water and land conservation.
Bipartisan majorities want New Jersey to protect its Highlands and Pinelands regions, according to a public opinion poll which my organization helped commission. The poll has important lessons for political leaders and advocates for water and land conservation.
For 30 years now, New Jersey has protected the forests and waters of the Pinelands through the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan. The Plan sets out a truly regional vision of where development should and should not go for 1.1 million acres, or nearly 25 percent of the state. The key is that local governments, which elsewhere have free rein over land use controls, must conform their local zoning to this regional plan.
The results, while not perfect, are nevertheless astounding: You can still find hundreds of thousands of acres of intact forest and pristine streams and bogs. You can still find species of plants and animals that are losing ground, or have already been wiped out, everywhere else in their natural range but are flourishing in the Pinelands. Without regional controls over sprawl, we would see subdivisions and malls scattered all over the Pinelands. Instead, intensive development is limited to designated growth zones in established cities and suburbs, mostly around the edges of the region.
The Highlands program is more recent but is already showing itself to be an essential and effective means of managing growth to protect the water supplies on which six million residents rely every day. Like in the Pinelands, the Highlands Regional Master Plan severely limits development in its core preservation area and promotes good planning for growth in the surrounding planning area.
Both of these programs run counter to the tradition of local, parochial control over development that dominates the rest of the state. So what do people think of them?
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance teamed with New Jersey Future, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Smart Growth America to commission the Monmouth Polling Institute to conduct a poll about smart growth issues in New Jersey. The William Penn Foundation funded the poll.
Here are some important results about the Highlands and Pinelands:
A majority of 55% know “a great deal” or “some” about the Pinelands, while 36% know “a great deal” or “some” about the Highlands. That difference is not surprising, given how new the Highlands program is, but it represents a challenge for advocates to spread the word.
Overwhelming numbers identify protecting clean water (91%) as very important, and strong majorities say protecting farmland and open space (62%) and preserving the state’s remaining forests (67%) are very important. The Highlands and Pinelands programs are all about protecting water and forests.
Two-thirds (66% and 64%, respectively) of those who have an opinion approve of having a regional commission set growth policies to which municipalities must conform in the Pinelands and Highlands.
Support for the Highlands and Pinelands programs is completely bipartisan, with equal levels of support from Republicans, Democrats and independents.
The poll shows that in New Jersey regional conservation and growth planning is a bi-partisan cause, even in today’s exceptionally divisive political culture, because New Jerseyans of all political stripes care about the driving purpose of these regional programs—protecting our water and surviving forests. The results also indicate the public is beginning to understand that preserving forests and having clean and plentiful water are intimately connected, because forests collect and cleanse water for people and the rest of nature—and, uniquely, they do it for free.
Full results of the poll can be found at www.pinelandsalliance.org/poll2011.
Carleton Montgomery is the executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and editor of “Regional Planning for a Sustainable America” (Rutgers University Press 2011).