Forty years ago this week, then-Governor Brendan Byrne stood before the New Jersey Legislature to champion a cause that would win him no political points: the preservation of the Pine Barrens.
“It’s a politically unpopular issue – trees don’t vote,” he said in his State of the State address on Jan. 10, 1978. However, Governor Byrne added, he would not be “dissuaded by the pressures to develop the Pine Barrens.”
He kept his promise, and over a million acres of ecologically-sensitive land sitting upon a vast underground freshwater aquifer were safeguarded in 1979 by the Pinelands Protection Act, which also established the Pinelands Commission and Comprehensive Management Plan.
The two-term Democratic governor, who passed away on January 4 at the age of 93, is remembered for many things: the state’s first income tax, legalized gambling in Atlantic City, his fight against organized crime, a high degree of integrity, a wonderful sense of humor, and civility to members of the opposite political party.
But saving the Pine Barrens was his most treasured legacy, the accomplishment of which he was most proud.
"When I had the last word leaving office, they asked me what I wanted to be remembered for. And I said the Pinelands," Byrne recounted at a Rutgers University forum in 1987.
It all started with a book: “The Pine Barrens” by John McPhee, published in 1968. Byrne was friends with the author; they played tennis together in Princeton, and he had gone to college and law school with McPhee’s older brother.
“The Pine Barrens” eloquently described the region’s history, natural wonders and people – as well as grandiose plans for a large, new city. McPhee was pessimistic about the region remaining a near-wilderness, predicting that it was “headed slowly toward extinction” due to a lack of political will.
Governor Byrne took his message as a challenge. Later, he would recall that the Pinelands Act was “unique in the sense that it would not have passed if I didn’t take an interest in it. The Pinelands was on nobody’s particular political agenda. It was on no political party’s agenda.”
Preserving the Pinelands was on the agenda of New Jersey conservation groups since 1965. In the early 70s, New Jersey Conservation Foundation worked with the Pine Barrens Coalition to spearhead efforts that led to the introduction and passage of federal legislation to protect the region in 1978, and to Governor Byrne's groundbreaking achievement. New Jersey Conservation Foundation later helped found the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
Byrne was thanked for his crusade in 2002, when then-Governor James E. McGreevey renamed Lebanon State Forest in the Pine Barrens in his honor. Brendan T. Byrne State Forest covers 37,242 acres in Burlington and Ocean counties.
“I think he was an extraordinary governor,” said McGreevey at a memorial service this week for Governor Byrne. “What he did with the Pinelands was the cusp of the environmental movement that swept across the nation."
“Governor Byrne never stopped advocating for the Pinelands in the face of all the challenges and threats he saw over the years, including the current pipeline developments,” said Carleton Montgomery, director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “He was always there for us, and we intend to always be here for him, battling for the Pinelands.”
Governor Byrne’s environmental legacy spread beyond the Pine Barrens.
Last year, Governor Byrne joined former Governors Kean, Whitman, and Florio, along with former Assemblywoman Maureen Ogden and former Congressman Rush Holt – to promote a set of “Principles to Protect our Public Lands, Water, Air and Wildlife” to encourage the New Jersey Congressional delegation to defend the environment in Washington.
“I urge all of our representatives in Washington to staunchly defend our national lands and landmarks for current and future generations,” Byrne said.
The four former governors also came together in 2015 to prevent a high-rise corporate headquarters from being built along the Hudson River Palisades. Their advocacy helped achieve a compromise with LG Electronics North America for a lower building with less visual impact on the Palisades. The effort also underscored the need for permanent preservation.
“The Palisades are an outstanding national landmark which was at risk,” recalls Larry Rockefeller. “Governor Byrne, in perhaps his final conservation ride, mounted up with former Governors Whitman, Florio, and Kean to the rescue of the Palisades.”
Everyone hopes their lives will make a difference, but there are few like governor Brendan Byrne whose life created a legacy of great importance. New Jersey owes him a huge debt of gratitude.
“Brendan Byrne was one of the state’s best governors, who will always be remembered because without him we would not have the Pinelands Preserve,” said former Governor Thomas Kean. “I will miss him as a good leader and a great friend.”
To learn more about Governor Byrne and his legacy, visit Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics website at http://governors.rutgers.edu/on-governors/nj-governors/governor-brendan-t-byrne-administration.
To learn more about the Pine Barrens and what makes them special, visit the Pinelands Preservation Alliance website at www.pinelandsalliance.org or the state Pinelands Commission at www.state.nj.us/pinelands.
To read more about the Palisades Interstate Park, visit the Palisades Park Conservancy website at https://www.palisadesparksconservancy.org.
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