PEMBERTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- This is the other New Jersey.
Far from the gas tanks, chemical plants and toll booths that have come to define the state in the minds of many, the Pinelands consist of more than a million acres of dense forest, wildlife and wetlands.
A flight over the region would reveal a canopy of lush green foliage as far as the eye can see, in a part of the state sometimes referred to as "the lungs of New Jersey." Endangered or threatened wildlife ranging from tree frogs and salamanders to bobcats, eagles and butterflies call its gnarly pine trees and sandy soil home.
But just outside the Pinelands sits the main power plant for southern New Jersey, one that has long created concern with the high levels of pollution its coal burners cause. The BL England plant recently agreed to switch from coal to natural gas to avoid being ordered to shut down by New Jersey environmental authorities.
And that is the center of one of the biggest jobs-vs.-environment clashes in recent New Jersey history.
A state agency tasked with protecting the Pinelands while managing development in responsible ways will try to balance those needs next month. On Jan. 10, the New Jersey Pinelands Commission will decide whether to approve a 22-mile natural gas pipeline through the woods to the power plant.
Six months of public hearings and contentious meetings have only raised the temperature, pitting conservation of the largest tract of wild space between Virginia and Boston against the desire for jobs and reliable energy for southern New Jersey, including teeming Atlantic City and its casinos. The commission's vote is the last obstacle to the plan by South Jersey Gas, which has already gotten other approvals it needs.
"The public has been talking to us since June, but the public has not heard how the commission feels," said Commissioner Paul Galletta, of Hammonton, who owns the largest cultivated blueberry company in the nation. "You can only beat this thing so much. It's time for us to hash this thing out."
Environmentalists say they fear the project will open the door to other types of private projects also forbidden in protected forestland. They say it will cause a loss of some habitat, as well as increase runoff and erosion in an area home to an aquifer estimated to hold 17 trillion gallons of some of the nation's purest water. By allowing a plant that now runs part time to run full time, they say, the pipeline will also increase environmental harm.
But supporters want the jobs. And the utility warns there is only one pipeline right now that takes gas to nearly 29,000 homes and businesses, which could be left out in the cold without a second means of getting gas to their homes if the existing pipeline fails.
South Jersey Gas would pay $8 million to a Pinelands land preservation fund to help clear the final hurdle. The deal would, in effect, exempt the pipeline from a ban on new transmission lines in the Pinelands. It needs commission approval because most of the people who would benefit from the project live outside the Pinelands region.
Many opponents say the plan would go beyond what the Pinelands Commission is supposed to do.
"It is not your mission to create jobs," Cape May County resident Martha Wright told the commission at a recent hearing.
"Protect the Pinelands," urged John Hiros. "That's your obligation -- nothing else."
Robert Allen, a teacher at Cumberland County College, said the commission needs to consider the potential impact of a pipeline rupture and fire. He cited a report done for the gas company by a consulting firm showing that a person would need to be standing more than a football field away from the pipe to survive such a fire.
The report counted 158 homes and 32 businesses within 125 feet of the proposed pipeline, including 10 homes and two businesses within 25 feet of it.
The gas company says the pipeline would be rigorously inspected and would meet tough safety and reliability standards. It would go under or next to existing roads through the Pinelands, the company says, minimizing the impact on forest and wetlands.
Many union members strongly support the project as a source of work during trying economic times and say they have built safe, reliable pipes that are still in use decades later.
"What I'm hearing is a lot of fear," said Rick Baynton, who works at the power plant. "I fear losing my job. I fear not being able to live at the Jersey shore with my family any longer. Heat and electric are necessary."
Will Pauls, president of the South Jersey Building Construction and Trades Council, said the pipeline would provide 1,000 jobs to skilled union workers, whose industry he said is experiencing a 40 percent unemployment rate.
"Everybody should be happy with this: clean natural gas to stop pollution," said Mark Hutchinson of the Tea Party group Liberty and Prosperity. "I'm a human and I have a habitat as well. My habitat needs to be heated. I need electricity to cook food. I need cheap, abundant electricity, hot water, all those things. There is no reason to stay here if a habitat for us isn't maintained."