America's most densely populated state becomes a vast swath of rustic green in the Pinelands of South Jersey,  but  "beautiful" does not describe Route 49.

Just inside the Maurice River Township line, a deer carcass lies stiff alongside the state highway as cars and trucks whiz by. Her upturned white tail points to a nearby road sign telling eastbound motorists they are in the Pinelands National Preserve.

"Keep it Clean & Green!" the sign admonishes.

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Cars and trucks whiz by along Route 49.

It is beneath the shoulder of this plain, two-lane slice of asphalt through the Pinelands of Cumberland County, and a few more roads in Atlantic and Cape May Counties, that South Jersey Gas hopes to lay a hotly disputed, 22-mile-long natural gas pipeline to serve an electrical generation plant on Great Egg Harbor River. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission's board could decide the route's fate at its Feb. 24 meeting.

To the many conservationists and environmentalists fighting the pipeline -- it would pass beneath 10 miles of a state-protected forest where such utilities are barred, to serve a power plant they say is not needed -- a dead deer might seem an apt metaphor for man's collision with nature.

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Cumberland Pond, part of the Peaslee Wildlife Management Area on Route 49, is near the beginning of the proposed pipeline.

But spend a day driving the route's roadways and you discover that mention of the pipeline evokes conflicting responses inside this 1.1 million acre expanse of jack pine and scrub oak forest, where graveyards, gas stations, luncheonettes, trailer parks, power lines, houses, villages and nearly a half-million people share space with deer and the secluded, root-beer colored creeks that twist through dark cedar groves, tumble over dams, and widen into sunlit lakes before seeping into New Jersey's coastal bays.

Along the route, mention of the pipeline provokes resentment and ignorance, resignation and enthusiasm.

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
In the Pinelands, graveyards, gas stations, luncheonettes, trailer parks, power lines, houses, villages and nearly a half-million people share space with deer and creeks.

“I’m afraid it’s gonna blow up. It happens all the time,” said 54-year-old Diane Cossaboon, whose faded trailer in Cumberland village sits 100 feet from the proposed route. “I got a  six-year-old grandson stays with me, and I want to see him grow up.”

Should commissioners reverse their rejection of three years ago and give South Jersey Gas the variance it seeks, the 24-inch, high-pressure line would begin here in Cumberland, a few hundred yards east of the dead deer, where Cossaboon has lived for 30 years.

Starting at the intersection of 49 and Union Road, where an SJG natural gas transmission line now terminates, the “Atlantic Reliability Link” would run for 10 miles under Route 49 to Estell Manor just inside the Atlantic County line. It would then turn southeast into Cape May County and under the residential streets of Tuckahoe before turning onto Route 50.

It would continue until turning off at Tuckahoe Road, and pass through Marmora to the converted B.L. England power plant -- currently coal-fired and a major source of air pollution -- at Beesley’s Point in Upper Township, Cape  May County.

The plant’s conversion to gas hangs on the Pinelands Commission's approving the pipeline route. If it does, the plant’s owner, Rockland Capital of Houston, Texas, would change B. L. England's name to "Cape May Energy Center" and continue selling electricity to the 13-state regional PJM grid.  The company pays about $6.2 million a year in taxes to Upper Township.

About a mile east of Cossaboon, 57-year-old Kathy Carole was backing a pickup truck onto her late brother-in-law's wooded property fronting Route 49. Retired from working at a nursing hospital, she said she welcomed a gas pipeline, since heating oil here is so expensive.

Told that the line would serve only the power plant, however, she scowled and swung open the door.

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Protected forest and animal sanctuaries share space with graveyards, busy roads, and trailer parks.

“When I grew up we could ride horses and cycles wherever we wanted,” Carole said, climbing out. “Now everything’s `the state this, the state that,’” she said. “They got a bird sanctuary over there where you can’t drive, only it don’t pay no taxes.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know how they get anything done around here.”  

South Jersey Gas may wonder about that, too.

Due east of where Carole stood starts 10 miles of protected Pineland forest, where a nearly unbroken wall of trees abuts both sides of 49 and extends north and south for miles. Here, the Pinelands Commission’s comprehensive management plan of 1981 (section 7:50-5.23) stipulates that all “institutional” uses must be primarily designed “to serve the needs of the Forest Area in which the use is to be located.”

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
“They’re putting it under the road where nobody’s going to see it,” said Eric Osborn, 58, “so the environmental impact is little to none. And if it keeps jobs at the [power] plant, I’m all for it.”

That rule is the linchpin argument of the line’s opponents, but it doesn’t trouble 58-year-old Eric Osborn. A sanitation supervisor at the Lassonde Pappas juice plant in Seabrook, he and his wife have lived for 16 years in a tidy clapboard house on five acres at Route 49 and Port Elizabeth Road.

“I know it’s a high-pressure line that’s not going to service any residents,” said Osborn, pausing from a carpentry project outside his garage. “But they’re putting it under the road where nobody’s going to see it, so the environmental impact is little to none. And if it keeps jobs at the [power] plant,” he said, “I’m all for it.”

The vast Pinelands -- which colonial settlers called the “pine barrens” because its acidic soil was so hostile to most cultivated crops -- became a 1.1 million-acre national preserve by act of Congress in 1978. A year later the New Jersey Pinelands Preservation Act imposed development restrictions on 938,000 of those acres, which are overseen by the staff and 15-member board of the state Pinelands Commission.

Today the commission-regulated Pinelands Area of about 415,000 people is a patchwork of nine different types of management zones. Here, the proposed pipeline would pass through or alongside a “Pinelands Village,” a “Forest,” two more “Villages,” and a “Rural Development” zone.

It would then enter a smaller Pinelands-Coastal Zone area regulated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Here, its last 5.5 miles would pass through a less restrictive Forest area and a Regional Growth area where the power plant resides.

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Spend a day driving the route’s roadways and you discover that words like “clean” and “green” and “pipeline” can mean very different things inside this 1.1 million acre expanse of jack pine and scrub oak forest.

Each area has a distinctive look and feel, and parts of Route 49 serve as the border between the various management areas. Approaching Estell Manor, for example, trees on the south side of the road wear signs listing 11 regulations posted by the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. On the north side, signs posted by the Landisville Gunning Club get straight to the point:

“Patrolled,” they warn. “No Gunning or Trespassing Under Penalty of the Law.”

In Village-designated Estell Manor, Michelle Smith was walking her two pit bulls outside Head of The River Baptist Church Cemetery. “I can’t say I have an appetite for it,” she said of the proposed pipeline. “But it’s probably going to happen.”

The roadway curves south here, and a series of road signs presently informs motorists they have entered Upper Township, Cape May County, and are now in the Great Egg Harbor River’s watershed. Here the dark and slender Tuckahoe River passes beneath Route 79 through a small, concrete sluice gate and disappears into a scenic woods.

Bob Fatzinger, South Jersey Gas’ senior vice-president for engineering, last week said the proposed pipeline would pass 50 to 60 feet below waterways like the Tuckahoe. In a phone interview he defended the company’s proposed route as the “most economically feasible and environmentally sensitive” of eight alternatives.

Four former New Jersey governors -- Brendan Byrne, James Florio, Tom Kean, and Christine Todd Whitman -- vigorously oppose the pipeline, saying its approval would set a harmful precedent.

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Words like “clean” and “green” and “pipeline” can mean very different things inside this 1.1 million acre expanse of jack pine and scrub oak forest.

On the outskirts of Tuckahoe, another designated “Village,” insurance inspector Scott Hummell found himself locked out of a closed, seasonal residential community on a small lake, and was tapping an email to his office.

The pipeline “is what it is,” said Hummell, who lives in Little Egg Township. “We need electricity, but is there an environmental impact? I don’t know. I think it’s going to help the big corporations,” he said, “but not the people. They say it’ll reduce costs of fuel and electricity, but it never will.”

At a small manufacturing office on the west side of Tuckahoe Road, Chris Fisher went to Google Maps and opened up a satellite image of his home near the plant in Beesley's Point, six miles away. “See those railroad tracks?” he asked. “That’s the line that takes the coal right to the power plant.” His children, he said, sometimes bring home the “black rocks” they find.

He and a co-worker were visited recently by activists opposed to the plant, but both fear that shutting the plant down would reduce the tax base.

"I pay $4,000 in [property] taxes," Fisher said. "A buddy of mine in Atco pays $6,500" on a similar property.

Upper Township receives $6.3 million from the state each year in energy receipts taxes. Under the current funding formula it will continue to do so whether the power plant is in operation or not.

In downtown Tuckahoe the proposed pipeline would depart Route 49 and traverse several residential streets, including Cedar Avenue, where 45-year-old Kim Boken and her children live with her mother. “I realize why they’re doing it,” she said. “It’s to keep the B.L. England plant open, and taxpayers here would see an increase” if it closed.

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
The Tuckahoe River crosses under Route 49 in Estell Manor, and is in the path of where the proposed South Jersey Gas 22-mile pipeline would run near mile mark 50.

And does she feel safe with a high-pressure gas transmission running under her street?

“I don’t know,” said Boken. “I’ve worked in emergency medical services and learned a lot of things can go wrong. ... Sometimes companies say things to get approvals, and then you find out it’s not really true.”

Getting up from her seat at an afternoon meeting of the Historical Preservation Society of Upper Township at the town’s quaint railroad station, Sonia Forry said her home in Tuckahoe would front on the pipeline and that she is “not totally for or against it.”

“If it ever went up the whole town would be incinerated,” she said, but called the power plant “a benefit.”

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
“I can see both sides" of the pipeline debate,” said Paul Best, 66.

Blocks away, on Route 50, Paul Best stood on a tall ladder outside the Masonic Lodge, removing the letters from a sign advertising a bygone "all you can eat" breakfast. "I can see both sides" of the pipeline debate, said Best, 66.

Thomas Oakes, 72, longtime owner of the Holtz boat works along Tuckahoe Road in Marmora, said he supported keeping the power plant open because his taxes were half those in nearby Atlantic County.

As for the pipeline, "It's supposed to go pretty far underground through here," he said, gesturing from his office to the Cedar Swamp River and marshlands – part of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge – that borders his five-acre marina.

"But it's a shame they couldn't have put in a secondary pipe so people along the way could tap into it."

About two miles east of the yard the pipe would turn north off Tuckahoe Road near Lilac Lane in Beesley's Point past the six-house residential development that Ralph Baum built 30 years ago.

"It'll come down Ocean Woods Road and go right through those woods," said Baum, 66, pointing one block south and then east from his newly tilled vegetable garden, where he'll soon plant tomatoes and cucumbers.

His taxes are half those in Somers Point, said Baum, and the prevailing westerly winds carry the plant's cinders and ash away from his home toward Ocean City, he said, "so it's been a great neighbor."

But along North Shore Road, which ends at a short sand beach that curves up to the plant in Beesley's Point, Kathy and Steve Heldt are "ambivalent," she said, about the plant and pipeline.

"We should definitely move away from coal," she said.

"And it's good for jobs," he said of the plant. "But gas [fired] is still a source of pollution."

She nodded. "I have to say I'm not that knowledgeable about all the issues," she said. "But it's important to protect the Pinelands."

DAVID O'REILLY / Staff
The B.L. England electrical generation plant on Great Egg Harbor River. The coal-fired plant would be converted to gas if the proposed gas pipeline through the Pinelands is approved.