By Alison Mitchell
The pristine wilderness of the New Jersey Pine Barrens may seem worlds apart from the state’s polluted industrial sites in need of cleanup and restoration. But one thing they had in common was James Florio in their corner.
Florio – a former New Jersey governor, U.S. congressman, state assemblyman and chair of the state Pinelands Commission – was an environmental champion whose legacy included helping preserve a million acres of the Pine Barrens as a national reserve and spearheading federal Superfund legislation to make polluters pay to clean up their messes.
Gov. Florio, who passed away on Sept. 25 at the age of 85, will be remembered as a tough and courageous leader who stood up for the environment throughout his political career and long after leaving office.
“Gov. Florio’s life and work should be a source of hope in this moment of daunting threats to our health, climate and democracy,” said Bradley Campbell, a former New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) commissioner and current president of the Conservation Law Foundation, who considers Florio a mentor.
“Gov. Florio was a generous and thoughtful man who believed in practical solutions,” recalled Michele Byers, former executive director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
“He was easily accessible and responsive to all kinds of requests for help on environmental matters and he keenly understood the role of a clean environment in securing a strong economy. And lastly, he was a good and kind friend,” Byers said.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Jim Florio came to New Jersey when he attended Trenton State Teachers College (now The College of New Jersey) and Rutgers-Camden Law School.
He was elected to the state Assembly in 1969 and re-elected twice. In 1974 he made the jump to the U.S. House of Representatives and was re-elected seven times, serving until January 1990.
As a Congressman during an era of growing concern over industrial pollution, Gov. Florio authored the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, better known as the Superfund law, to clean up severely contaminated sites throughout the country.
Campbell pointed out it took “enormous courage” for him to take on the chemical industry, given its prominence in his home state: “At the time, New Jersey was the second largest chemical producing state in the country.”
The Superfund law brought hundreds of millions of dollars to New Jersey for natural resource restorations and land conservation.
Gov. Florio was also part of the effort to stop ocean dumping off the coast of New Jersey, working with the Clinton administration, Campbell recalled.
A huge part of Gov. Florio’s environmental legacy is leading the push for a federal Pinelands protection law, which set the stage for state legislation.
“He and his staff worked closely with Gov. Brendan Byrne and the Department of the Interior to create America’s most creative and most powerful regional conservation program, embodied first in Section 502 of the National Parks and Recreation Act, then in New Jersey’s Pinelands Protection Act,” said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the nonprofit Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
“Gov. Florio was proud of his critical role in creating the Pinelands protections that have been so successful over more than 40 years now,” added Montgomery. “He stayed engaged, answered every request I made of him for his support, or just his advice and wisdom. And his interest in the Pinelands was one among his many engagements with public policy and the public good.”
Florio was elected governor in 1989 and served from January 1990 to January 1994, continuing to be an environmental leader.
He was an early leader in securing protection for the New Jersey Highlands, a key source of drinking water in the northern half of the state.
In 1993, he signed an executive order creating a Highlands Trust Advisory Board to identify lands most suitable for preservation and conservation. This laid the groundwork for the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act more than a decade later.
After leaving the governor’s office, he regularly advocated and consulted on environmental matters.
“I think just about every governor who followed him sought his advice,” said Campbell. “He continued to champion progressive environmental and conservation policies at the state and national level for the rest of his life.”
David Moore, a former executive director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation, recalled that “if there was some particular issue where help was needed, you could always call him and he would be willing to take a step.”
From 2002-05, Gov. Florio served as chairman of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, an independent state agency charged with protecting the natural, cultural and historic resources of the Pinelands.
It was a particularly fitting role for him given that protection of the Pines was such an important part of his work in Congress.
Gov. Florio served as an honorary trustee of New Jersey Conservation Foundation, along with governors Tom Kean, Christie Whitman and Brendan Byrne.
The four collectively spoke out on a number of very important issues, including a proposal for a high-rise corporate building on the beautiful, undeveloped Palisades cliffs along the Hudson River.
Thanks in part to the activism of the four governors, a compromise was reached on the building height and the historic view of the Palisades was preserved.
Also notable was his willingness to mentor younger environmentalists.
“Gov. Florio’s leadership and mentorship inspired a generation of leaders in public service to emulate his example, an enduring legacy that continues to enrich and energize public interest advocacy to this day,” said Campbell.
New Jersey owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Gov. Florio. Thanks to him and the like-minded leaders he influenced, residents of this state we’re in have protected land and water in the Pinelands and Highlands, clean beaches and continuing cleanups of contaminated sites.
Alison Mitchell is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.