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Pinelands Commission Releases Damage Report for Wharton State Forest

By | October 20th, 2016

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Visual representation of data submitted to the Pinelands Commission

The Pinelands Commission has released the first official ORV damage report for a Pinelands area at their monthly meeting on October 14, 2016. Robyn Jenny, a Resource Planner, GIS mapped and confirmed data sets provided by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, Pinelands Commission Staff, and Pinelands Commissioner Richard Prickett.

The data that we provided was painstakingly documented from aerial photographs and confirmed by in-the-field site visits. This combined effort provided over 200 individual locations within the State forest that have suffered from off-road vehicle abuse. The damaged locations had concentrations within the Batsto Natural Area, Sandy Ridge Natural Heritage Priority Site, and the West Wading River Natural Heritage Priority Site.

The sensitivities of the areas mapped indicate the importance of enacting management that will curtail further damage and allow previously abused areas a chance to heal. According to the DEP, reports to the DEP Hotline in Wharton State Forest are up 35% from 2012 to 2016. It is clear that the DEP needs support, and the Commission has, within its regulations, the authority to provide that support with a map. It is imperative that the Commission acts now. There are a number of strategies that the Commission may pursue in its efforts to curtail illegal and damaging use, but the foremost among these is to decide on a map that will guide the designation of which forest paths (roads) are acceptable for street-legal motorized use. At Commission meetings this year, there has been much discussion on the pre-existing maps that could accomplish that goal, including the recently developed Wharton Motorized Access Plan map, the most recent USGS (United States Geologic Survey) 2014 topographical maps, as well as legacy USGS topographical maps.

Here are a few points about each map.

Wharton Motorized Access Plan Map

  • Highly detailed and accurate, mapped with GPS technology.
  • Routes created in conjunction with the State Forest Fire Service to ensure safety during fire outbreaks.
  • Routes reviewed and approved by DEP’s Land Management Review for impact to endangered and threatened species.
  • GIS files are easily loadable into an App for mobile use and would be updatable based on current conditions
  • Updated to mark new features in the State Forest such as camping areas, Wilderness Areas, Natural Areas, hiking trails, biking trails, and horseback riding trails.

USGS 2014 Topographic Map at 24:000:1 Scale

  • This most recent effort by the USGS used TomTom’s Multinet Mapping service to document routes with a combination of a mobile mapping van and high-resolution aerial imagery.
  • Routes are based on navigability, not historic use.
  • This map has far fewer motorized miles than either the Motorized Access Plan map or the 1997 USGS map.
  • No marking of camping areas, Wilderness Areas, Natural Areas, hiking trails, biking trails, or horseback riding trails.

Legacy USGS 1953-1997 USGS Topographic Maps

  • Based upon data gathered by field observers in the early 1950s
  • Total of seven 7.5 minute quad maps that cover Wharton State Forest. Only four were reprinted in 1997. Maps from the 53-58 printing could be used to fill in gaps.
  • This road data was gathered  during the 1950’s before the Comprehensive Management Plan(CMP) took effect, which would be consistent with the grandfathering of pre-existing uses that is allowed for in other parts of the CMP.
  • This will have more motorized routes than any of the other two maps and some routes will not be navigable by even standard 4×4 vehicles.
  • No marking of camping areas, Wilderness Areas, Natural Areas, hiking trails, biking trails, or horseback riding trails.
  • Some areas will still be vulnerable to ORV abuse and will not be able to be patrolled by police vehicles.

The Motorized Access Plan map is in our view the clear winner. However, any of these maps would be a significant improvement over the current situation. It is up to the Commission at this point to decide which map makes sense from an environmental, practical, and political perspective. We will strongly support the selection of either of these maps by the Pinelands Commission to help stem the tide of abuse that is degrading vast areas of the Pinelands National Reserve.

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The Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan gives the Commission the authority to do this.

Section 7:50-6.143 states the following:

  1. No motor vehicle other than fire, police or emergency vehicles or those vehicles used for the administration or maintenance of any public land shall be operated upon publicly owned land within the Pinelands. Other motor vehicles may operate on public lands for recreational purposes on public highways and areas on land designated prior to August 8, 1980 for such use by state and local governmental entities until designated as inappropriate for such use under (a) 3 below.
  2. The Commission shall from time to time designate areas which are inappropriate for use of motor vehicles. Such designation shall be based upon the following considerations and upon consultation with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and other interested persons:

           i. A need to protect a scientific study area;
           ii. A need to protect the location of threatened or endangered plant or animal species;
           iii. A need to provide a wilderness recreational area;
           iv. A need to prevent conflicts with adjoining intensively used recreational areas;
           v. A need to protect historic or archaeological sites;
           vi. A need to protect critical wildlife habitats;
           vii. A need to address a situation of public health and safety;
           viii. A need to protect extensively disturbed areas from further impact; and
           ix. The extent to which such road closure would substantially impair recreation access to and uses of surrounding resources.

Perception and Preservation

By | September 21st, 2016

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Of all the battles we wage to protect the Pinelands National Reserve, one of the most important is make the high ecological value of the Pinelands known to the public. All advocates and antagonists of the movement to preserve public lands are engaged in a cultural debate about the intrinsic, scientific, and aesthetic value of the land and water. The winners of this debate will ultimately control the fate of the Pines as they shape and influence the minds of the public and of policymakers.

In 2013, sociologist Robert Brulle of Drexel University released a study on the funding of the climate denial groups, he said that “The climate change countermovement has had a real political and ecological impact on the failure of the world to act on global warming,” In a telling example of this counter-movement success, during a 2015 meeting to present a motorized access plan for Wharton State Forest, a group in the back of the room audibly laughed when the presenter mentioned climate change as one of the reasons for shifting management strategies in the State Forest. Have they read the latest climate reports indicating that 2016 (and the each of the 5 years previous) are the hottest on record or are they simply defaulting to a manufactured position instilled in their culture by well-funded anti-environment marketing firms?

The crux of the strategy of the anti-environment marketing campaign is to instill non-scientifically valid beliefs into large subcultures in the United States. By dividing those with an interest in img_0130conservation, they are promoting differences instead of similarities and relying on an us-versus-them strategy. To defeat this false choice, we have to consider ways to relate to the many cultures with an interest in conservation. By harnessing and promoting values that other groups find important, we can emphasize our similarities and minimize conflicts over disputed issues. There is nothing that the oil and gas industry, off-road vehicle lobby, and developers want more than to divide those who value public land, clean air, and water.

In one example, we need both hunters and animal rights activists to unite when it comes to protecting wild places. When these groups conflict in antagonistic ways, the only outcome is a weakening of both, in favor of groups that have no interest in promoting a healthy wildlife community. If we focus on working together to achieve symbiotic goals , we can benefit both groups and resist the trap of tribalism that ultimately weakens. The consequence of failure in this regard is already having direct impacts on the public lands of this state. The truth is that one can be a hunter and an animal right’s advocate, one can be an off-road vehicle enthusiast and a preservationist, and one can be an environmentalist and also want a strong local economy. These groups that are usually pitted against each other are often more similar than they are different and it is up to us to resist the us-versus-them trap that degrades the decision-making process.

Simultaneously, we have to recognize the validity of the concerns of these groups within the conservation movement and work in good faith to resolve them. For example, all animals should have rights and respect, but hunting is a strongly valued local tradition, a valued management tool, and an important means of local subsistence. We should work to join these groups by focusing on the similarities, such as the desire for a diverse and healthy wildlife community. In a similarly contentious example, is the debate over off-road vehicle use caused conflict among those who value publicly owned land. Because of the vast amount of damage that has been documented, it is our opinion that off-road vehicle driving cannot be done sustainably in the Pinelands. However, that does not mean there should not be a well-designed off-road vehicle course on private lands in a less ecologically sensitive area in the State. In another example, we do not want pipelines to criss-cross the Preservation and Forest Area of the Pinelands for legal and environmental reasons, but we do want sustainable economic opportunities for those that live in the Pinelands Region. None of these positions are directly opposed, but they are often framed in that context by those with an interest in divisiveness.

If we are able to find a way to relate to each other, then we may be able to compromise on even highly contentious issues and strengthen the ultimate mission of preservation.

 

Fight for the Future of the Pines

By | August 19th, 2016

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In the Pinelands National Reserve, we are in the midst of a major cultural challenge. The majority of visitors and residents of the Pines are law abiding, respectful, and conservation-minded, but a small minority has opinions that are counter to the conservation values that we all work so hard to instill. On July 12th, as part of a restoration effort, hard-working volunteers planted 300 Atlantic White Cedar trees on private land that had suffered from tremendous abuse by off-road vehicles. The total cost of the 3-6 foot tall Atlantic White Cedars was over $2,000 dollars, not including the hours spent in the hot July sun by these committed volunteers. The roots began to take successfully and it appeared that this restoration had a strong IMG_2373chance of success, but on the night of August 6th, a group of off-road vehicle drivers decided differently.

They drove their vehicles in circles purposefully in the site, rutted the soil, and drove over the freshly planted saplings. They then got off their vehicles and physically pulled the tender trees out of the ground as the roots clung to the native soil. The ORV drivers then piled the saplings in a large mound, poured gasoline on them, and lit them on fire. This despicable behavior is all too common in the off-road vehicle culture as just last week another ORV driver was arrested for striking a police officer while fleeing the scene of a crime.   Whether it is a historic site, ice-aged pond, paleo-dune, stream, or river, off-road vehicle drivers have shown no mercy to the Pine Barrens. We have to work to stop this or we will continue to lose many of the most beautiful and unique habitats of the Pinelands.

Time-lapse footage of volunteers planting Atlantic White Cedar saplings

 

Video of the aftermath of Off-road Vehicle vandalism on the restoration site.

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In another example,  just two weeks after volunteers cleaned and repainted the grounds and structures of Apple Pie Hill, individuals  returned and threw televisions off the tower once again, littered beer cans and other refuse, and spray painted profane language across signs and guardrails. This landmark destination in the Pinelands is a microcosm of what has been happening across the National Reserve and the State forests within it, but we are not discouraged. This weekend we will paint back over the graffiti and clean up the refuse left by these individual in order to give the other visitors of the Pines the experience that they deserve.

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Even in witness to this incredible behavior, we will not be discouraged, our resolve is steadfast and we will eventually succeed in the effort to protect the land and water from off-road vehicle abuse and the other threats. We are in this for the future of the Pinelands National Reserve and we will continue to fight to prevent further damage and work to restore areas that have already been lost.

Take action now 

Come to the next Pinelands Commission meeting and tell them to stop off-road vehicle abuse in the Pinelands. The next meeting is Friday, September 9th at 9:30 AM.

 

 

Grassroots call for more Federal participation in the Pinelands.

By | August 11th, 2016

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Photograph by Albert Horner

Photograph by Albert Horner

 

A recent grass-roots petition calling for the upgrading of the Pinelands National Reserve to National Park status has gained thousands of signatures over the past few weeks.  While the language of the petition needs substantial flushing out, the desire for a higher level of federal participation has merit, especially as the interference of state politics grows in the agencies charged with the stewardship of the Pinelands.

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Bog Asphodel by Jason Howell

Although the re-designation of some part of the Pinelands National Reserve may not be a practical short-term proposal, Department of Interior and the National Park Service should take a stronger public role in the Pines. The Pinelands was designated as the Nation’s first National Reserve in order to fully protect the most important habitat while compromising in other areas to allow for the partial expansion of Pinelands Towns , Regional Growth Areas, and pre-existing agricultural use. Other cultural concerns were also taken into account, such as the highly valued practice of hunting and trapping. These multifaceted compromises were critical during the negotiations that led to the National Reserve’s designation, and this approach is the reason the Comprehensive Management Plan has been successful to date.

The Pinelands Protection Act(1979) was authorized by Congress due to the importance of the region to the Nation as a whole. The act ordered the creation of the Comprehensive Management Plan and directed the creation of the Pinelands Commission to oversee the plan’s implementation. This was truly a landmark land use agreement at the time and has been widely studied by other regions developing conservation arrangements with a large variety of public and private interests.

 

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Pine Barrens Treefrog

This model has functioned well for over three decades, but there are new concerns about the interference of State politics in stewardship decisions. Particularly concerning has been the executive branch’s efforts to replace the honest and dedicated Pinelands Commissioners who voted their conscious against the construction of the South Jersey Gas Pipeline that is now being battled in the courts. This type of political interference is a serious threat to the integrity of the Commission and one that has been noticed by the citizenry and the press. The recent withdrawal of the Motorized Access Plan by the NJDEP has highlighted the negative effect special interest groups can have on the preservation of the land with the highest ecological value in the State. This failure of stewardship is not lost on the general public, and that is why we have seen such a strong public response to a petition that would take control out of the State’s hands.

The Federal Government should have a greater role in the management of this largest open space on the eastern seaboard between the everglades and the northern forests of Maine. As it stands today, the Department of Interior only has one seat on the Pinelands Commission, while seven Commissioners are appointed by the Governor of New Jersey and one Commissioner is appointed by each of the seven counties in the Pinelands Region. Additionally, the Chairperson of the Pinelands Commission is directly appointed by the Governor of New Jersey, and this combination has given the executive branch far more power than any other party.

With this new surge of grassroots energy to reestablish a federal relationship with the Pines, the Department of Interior should begin to take a more public role in the major decisions that need to be made by the Commission. If they do this, perhaps they can begin to rebalance the power relationship in the Commission and begin to put conservation first, instead of the desires of  special interests. As New Jersey begins to reach the build out of available private land, there will be more pressure than ever to cave in to the demands of the developers. We are in the midst of a renewed conservation movement to counter this pressure and we are going to need all the help we can get.

 

Poaching in the Pines

By | June 13th, 2016

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Northern Pine Snake

When the illegal business of poaching is brought up in media, it is most often in reference to the large mammals of the African Plains, the rare species of the Amazon, or the last of the great cats in Asia, but right here in the Pinelands National Reserve we face many of the same threats to our iconic species. Most notably, the Northern Pine Snake, the Timber Rattle Snake, Spotted turtles, Box Turtles, and juvenile American eels. In 2009, the NY Department of Environmental Conservation revealed a secret network of reptile smugglers in the Long Island Pine Barrens Preserve and New York State with connections to New Jersey, Maryland, Louisiana, and Ontario, Canada. Their investigation revealed part of the world of illegal trade in endangered and threatened species native to the Pine Barrens. The investigation began when an entire population of Spotted-Turtles that was being studied abruptly vanished. Investigators made connections at reptile shows where enthusiasts meet to buy, sell, and admire species. While the majority of those that attend these shows are law-abiding and conservation minded, it is also true that there are those who are willing to break the law in pursuit of rare species or a lucrative sale.

Read the rest of this entry »

Managing Our State Forests

By | May 25th, 2016

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Cedar Swamp at Goshen Pond in Wharton State Forest

Cedar Swamp at Goshen Pond in Wharton State Forest

In our last blog post, we covered the ecological role of fire in the Pinelands and the use of prescribed burns as a management technique.  We know that prescribed burns are not the only management technique used in our forest, so how do we try to replicate natural disturbance events to promote overall ecological integrity and what should we prioritize in developing stewardship plans for managing our state forests? Read the rest of this entry »

Fire in the Pines

By | May 11th, 2016

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After a recent forest fire in Wharton State Forest

Fire Gives Life to the Pine Barrens

Fire, like water, is an essential component of Pine Barrens ecology. Fire adds nutrients into the soil and creates open habitat essential for many species. For those of us who live within the Pines, we recognize that wildfire can be a risk from time to time and accept that some measures be taken to minimize the chance of damage to housing and infrastructure.  The compromise that we have collectively made is to conduct controlled burns that fulfill some of the ecological function of fire and simultaneously reduce the risk of a large forest fire that could potentially cause property damage. This is a more natural approach than clearing trees and opening the forest to damaging off-road vehicle activity. Read the rest of this entry »

Road Designations for the Pinelands

By | April 27th, 2016

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Pristine Pinelands Pond – Wharton State Forest

Cindy Pond - Wharton State Forest

Off-Road Vehicle Abused Pond – Wharton State Forest

The Pinelands Commission needs to designate which forest paths are and are not appropriate for motor vehicle use within the Pinelands National Reserve and they must start with Wharton State Forest.  The Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan gives the Commission the authority to do this. Read the rest of this entry »

Lenses of Nature

By | April 12th, 2016

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The Mullica River after a winter storm.

The lenses through which we view the earth are different for every person. In the Pine Barrens, there are distinct cultural views separating individuals and groups in the debate over land-management. These points of view carry with them all the accumulated baggage of the land-use and property debates that have raged over the centuries. From the colonization of the Americas and the persecution of native people to the creation of National Parks, Forests, and Reserves, we have a long history of debate, conflict, and resolution over land and water. Additionally, we all have individual experiences that shape our perceptions of the natural world and influence our perspective. The state of New Jersey will only become more densely populated in the future so it is more important than ever that we build a consensus that balances the desire to use our natural resources with the need to protect them. Read the rest of this entry »

The resiliency of the Pinelands

By | April 1st, 2016

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A stream corridor turned into a defacto mudding arena in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest

Note: This piece by PPA’s Director of Conservation Science, Ryan Rebozo, was originally published as an editorial in the Burlington County Times on March 28, 2016.  It was written to expand further on statements made in WHYY radio report (90.9 FM) broadcast on March 21, 2016 about the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s draft plan restrict motor vehicle access in Wharton State Forest.  During that radio story a self-described dirt-bike rider used the argument of resiliency as support for their opposition to put stronger protection in place for Wharton State Forest.

Read or listen to the WHYY Radio report Plans to close roads in Wharton State Forest kicking up dust among locals

On March 21st, Newsworks on WHYY (90.9 FM) ran a short segment on the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s rescinded Motorized Access Plan, a plan that would have designated which sand roads in Wharton State Forest are suitable for motor vehicle activity, and which are better suited for foot, horseback, and bicycling activity. These designations were to be assigned based on accessibility, natural resources, and critical habitat. The piece used audio clips of myself and others commenting on this particular issue. I took note of one argument by a dirt-biker who made the claim that the Pinelands isn’t fragile because it survived the industrial revolution.  Read the rest of this entry »