A proposed natural gas pipeline denounced by environmentalists is one step closer to becoming a reality in South Jersey.

On Tuesday Nancy Wittenberg, the executive director of the Pinelands Commission, recommended that the board approve the project, saying it conforms to the development standards of the one million-acre nature reserve. Because the proposed pipeline would cross through the Pinelands, the commission has to sign off.

The commission is scheduled to vote on the proposal by New Jersey Natural Gas next Friday.

"There's been a lot of debate over this project," said Michael Kinney, a spokesman for NJNG, "but what's clear is that it's important, it's needed, and it benefits the join base."

The so-called Southern Reliability Link pipeline would serve customers in Burlington, Ocean, and Monmouth counties as well as the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, according to the company.

But critics, such as the Sierra Club's Jeff Tittel, have argued that there is no need for the pipeline, which they say could endanger sensitive ecosystems in the Pinelands. "This is land that was supposed to be protected for future generations," he said, "not be given over to a gas company."

Opponents have also claimed the pipeline is unnecessary and would only serve to enrich the gas company.

Should the Pinelands Commissioners approve the pipeline, Kinney said, the company would need a few more local permits before construction could begin. The state Board of Public Utilities has already approved the project, and the Department of Environmental Protection has issued the necessary permits, Kinney said.

Last month dozens of opponents and a few supporters gathered in Toms River to voice their opinions on the pipeline.

It is one of two currently proposed natural gas pipelines through the Pinelands. The Pinelands Commission approved the other project, proposed by South Jersey Gas, in February.