A long time ago, New Jersey and the federal government saved 1.1 million acres of forest and 17 trillion gallons of clean water from the monstrous threat of oil pipelines. They were afraid that crude would be pumped from the Atlantic Ocean through the Pinelands to Delaware River ports. In 1980, they wrote the Comprehensive Management Plan, a smart way to protect the forest,  the water flowing under it, and the threatened and endangered creatures and plants that inhabit it. They appointed a commission that would enforce the rules and direct development so there would be harmony between what man wanted and what nature needed. It was a stellar achievement.

But the stewards of the last century had the wrong forest ogres in mind.

In less than three years, natural gas pipeline profiteers have ripped away the Pinelands' protections and opened the gates for even more intrusions to the environmentally fragile area.

First, they took out the sentries. When the Pinelands Commission, whose sworn duty is to protect the forest, did its job in 2014 and rejected a gas pipeline, Gov. Christie and allies systematically replaced the members with pro-development commissioners. Next, the stacked commission voted in February and September for separate pipelines even though they violate the words and spirit of the  management plan, which has successfully guided stewards for almost four decades.

One set of profiteers argued that their natural gas pipeline did not violate the plan because it would primarily be used for the needs of the Pinelands. But that's not true. The gas from that pipeline will feed an energy plant in Beesleys Point in Cape May County and won't be used by Pinelands residents. They have enough gas.

The other set of profiteers argued that their pipeline could be used by Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst because it runs under it. But there are no plans to tap that gas line for the base's use.

"They're twisting words and language in ways that were never imagined by the authors," said Pinelands Preservation Alliance executive director Carleton Montgomery. "You can't take language and misuse it so badly that it becomes meaningless."

But thankfully, environmentalists are fighting these shaky misinterpretations of the Pinelands plan in the courts. They should win if judges understand that once the plan is broken, it is easier to break it again and again for increasingly harmful development.

The next best hope for protecting the white cedar swamps, pitch pine lowlands and delicate meadows and marshes as well as the integrity of the forest's stewards is a new governor.  New Jersey will get one in January 2018.

Fortunately,  candidates Phil Murphy, the Democrat, and Kim Guadagno, the Republican, have said they value the Pinelands and understand the importance of the forest to a healthy environment. In the ongoing general election, they need to explain to voters their plans for fixing what Christie and his allies have broken.  Because biodiversity and water depend on it — and so does our very survival.