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Protecting Wharton State Forest – A New Plan Takes Shape

By | August 24th, 2015

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Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 3.02.32 PMThe New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced the launch of a Motorized Access Plan (MAP) for the state’s largest tract of land, Wharton State Forest (125,000 acres). This plan consists of a map that delineates close to 225 miles of sand and unimproved roads intended for motor vehicle use while leaving other access areas for emergency vehicles, wildlife, walking and other low-impact recreation. It also includes a brochure that highlights the ecology of Wharton State Forest. The driving map and brochure will be available later this summer at Atsion Recreation Area and historic Batsto Village. Download the driving map 

I’d like to explain why the Pinelands Preservation Alliance supports the Motorized Access Plan (MAP), with the understanding that there is plenty of room for honest disagreement about whether this policy is the best response to the problems Wharton faces.

PPA’s Long-held Position: Stop the Destruction

For years, PPA has called for a set of actions to address what we see as a real crisis in the State Forest: the destruction being caused by illegal and irresponsible “mudding” and ATV use and dumping. One of those actions is the closing of some sand roads so the State Forest can focus its very limited resources on maintaining fewer roads and enforcing rules against illegal and destructive activities.

The MAP actually reiterates rules that have been in place for many years, but haven’t been enforced. It leaves all public rights of way open for motorized vehicles, with the exception of a few that are currently too dangerous but will be opened when (and if) repaired. The roads the MAP closes to trucks, cars and motorcycles are all unofficial roads have been created by a variety of people and agencies over a long range of time.

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Jemima Mount in Wharton State Forest

Some key facts about the MAP that guide our decision to support it are these:

  • More than 220 miles of sand roads are open to the public for driving. All of Wharton State Forest is within one mile or less of these public sand roads or paved public roads. Check the maps: it’s true.
  • The liveries, including Pinelands Adventures and Micks and Bel Haven, as well as all other groups like PPA, are subject to the MAP just like the general public. There are no special deals for or against the groups supporting or opposing the MAP. PPA doesn’t get to charge people so they can go places in the woods. Like the other liveries, Adventures charges people for its livery service and boat rentals, not for access, because access is free to everyone (except the liveries, which pay the state for permits to the same places that are free to the public).
  • The Forest Fire Service strongly supports the MAP because it will keep the fire fighting roads it needs open and safe, whereas today many of those roads have become impassable and dangerous due to “mudding” by trucks and jeeps.
  • The only special accommodation in the MAP is for those with disabilities who cannot walk to their special places. The DEP states it will provide special permits to those with disabilities.

The MAP will only work if it is enforced by the State Park Police. Some people are justly worried that the people doing harm will ignore the rules and continue to use the “closed” sand roads, while law-abiding citizens will be the only ones excluded from driving on roads they have used for many years. The Department of Environmental Protection states that the Park Police will step up its game and make the MAP work. We will be watching to hold the State to that commitment.

If you need more information, you can download the DEP’s “Motorized Access Plan – Frequently Asked Questions document.”

The FAQs include information about how to share feedback with the state about the MAP and about stakeholder meetings that will be held on the MAP in September 2015. The DEP states that the MAP is a work in progress. The State Park Service will be evaluating the effectiveness of the plan and if possible some roads/routes may be opened in the future.

The Damage is Real

The Pinelands Preservation Alliance and the South Jersey Land and Water Trust documented some of the damage in 2014 when we mapped and surveyed sites of illegal off-road vehicle damage and dumping on state-owned lands in the Pinelands. We documented 114 damaged sites including sites in Wharton State Forest, which is by no means the complete list of the impacts our state lands have suffered from these illegal activities.

View an interactive map of the damage on our website.

We have heard from many people who use the Pinelands and Wharton State Forest to hunt, hike, drive and bike saying that in the last five to ten years they have never seen the roads torn up like they are now. Our own experience bears this out as a few of our staff have become stuck in deep puddles when out scouting routes for future field trips and have needed to get towed out. We have talked to tow truck drivers who had to change their equipment in order to reach customers in Wharton State Forest and elsewhere because the roads have become so bad.

Erosion and stream sedimentation are a big concern for riparian and aquatic species as well as our State’s anglers. The complete destruction some drivers have caused to certain vernal pools has reduced the amount of breeding grounds left for the threatened Pine Barrens Tree-frog. When vehicles drive down the sandy banks of the Mullica and the Batsto Rivers, they greatly increase erosion which causes soil sedimentation and the degradation of aquatic habitat. The problem of erosion caused by irresponsible off-road vehicle use isn’t restricted to just the riverbanks. Unethical drivers will purposely rut trails and wetlands areas to cover their vehicles in mud. The erosion caused by rutting leads again to river sedimentation and habitat destruction. There is no doubt that extensive damage has occurred in Wharton State Forest and elsewhere.

Enforcement

Enforcement of illegal off-roading activities has been difficult for the Park Police without a well-publicized map clearly designating areas for motorized vehicle use and areas where motorized vehicles are prohibited. This plan and map make it possible for the State Forest and Park Police to use their limited resources effectively by placing some roads off-limits to motorized vehicles.

The Wharton State Forest MAP is no different from management plans in all National Parks and State Forests, where many sand roads are not open to driving by the public in the interests of protecting natural resources and public safety. This means that some visitors may not be able to drive on a sand road they had used before. It is a shame that the situation has reached this point after years of work increasing fines through state legislation and local ordinances, increasing public awareness about the issues and creating a State off-road vehicle park. But the problem persists, and the State of New Jersey has a responsibility to protect the natural and cultural resources of all the land it owns.

The MAP will keep vehicles out of places that are currently being damaged, so these places can recover, and keep undamaged areas from becoming the next ORV playground.

PPA has helped organize volunteers to assist Wharton State Forest to protect and restore damaged areas. All volunteers work at the direction of the State Forest, not the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. No live trees were cut by volunteers. Blocking informal and illegal access ways to streams, wetlands and upland habitats is an important part of this project.

If you have any questions about this project please contact Wharton State Forest at 609-268-0444.

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