A Short Update
The waning months of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 been very trying times for Wharton State Forest, New Jersey’s largest State Forest. In the summer of 2015 the DEP gave the “all ahead full” to a unique plan to manage Wharton’s resources, resources that were being depleted rapidly by excessive off-road vehicle use. As the M.A.P. (Motorized Access Plan) got underway the very people who use the forest as their Motorsports Park became alarmed that they would be losing the testing ground for their very expensive off-road vehicles, Jeeps, dirt bikes, and ATVs (ATVs are illegal on all public lands in NJ) that challenge the land. I might add that this culturally embedded idea that the Pine Barrens is a motor sports arena has been fostered by many decades of the DEP and The Pinelands Commission issuing permits for off-road vehicle events for both 4 x 4s and dirt-bike enduros. (There are perhaps 20 such events every year in the Pine Barrens. The irony of this is these events are not permitted in Northern New Jersey parks like Round Valley Reservoir, Stokes State Forest, Spruce Run Reservoir,or any of the other Northern parks. These events are only held in the Pine Barrens). Off-road vehicles events are not staged in any adjoining state’s
parks (this has also created a lot of traffic from out-of-state sources). So, several Facebook groups were started to oppose the closure of any of the roads/trails in Wharton SF. The off-road groups found a helpful and well-financed partner in a hunting and fishing lobby (some of their ranks are off-roaders), neither group wanted to lose their supposed open access to Wharton SF, or any of the many Pinelands areas they use to challenge their vehicles or hunt and fish. With a prominent lobbying group already in place the hunting and fishing lobby, with their new allies, gained access to the Governor’s office by claiming tens of thousands of voters (one can assume almost all the hunters and fisherman in NJ more than likely don’t appreciate the noise and chaos that off-road vehicles cause in their natural world. You can also image they may have been hijacked into thinking all of the State Forest are going to be closed!) would not stand for any closures in Wharton SF. So the environment be damned! selfish suppossed voters win, the DEP caved and rescinded the very management program they already backed 100%, one that took years to develop. The DEP hop scotched around by holding a series of meetings, stakeholder meetings as they referred to them, and without hesitation (oh, perhaps a little pressure from the Governor’s Office) they officially rescinded the M.A.P.
We skip now to what is going on in today’s world.
At a Stake Holders meeting in March the DEP agreed with all concerned that the major issue creating the destruction of Wharton was the total lack of enforcement by the NJ Park Police. So, they announced the assignment of seven officers to the Wharton office in Batsto. They are assigned to just patrol Wharton, 24/7, unless something that needs more attention in another area required their participation. Also, the DEP had new signage made to post environmentally sensitive areas, eleven or twelve specific spots, and they were waiting for large metal signs to be placed at about 50 entrances to Wharton. The metal signs are to warn that there are restrictions to motor vehicle usage in the park and it cited all the codes that could be enforced. Once the new signs arrived they requested volunteers to install them. There are claims to many violations being charged against errant off-road vehicle users since the addition of officers and the installation of new signage, but it seems no one wants to give up the information. Attempts to obtain the violation information, which would help determine how successful the new enforcement program is working, have apparently met with a lot of resistance because groups have tried to OPRA the
information but so far no success. In April the DEP received the metal signs and over a two morning period volunteers from various groups collaborated to install them. A job well done. At this point most of the paper Environmentally Sensitive Area signs have been largely ignored, some ripped off the trees and some even burned. To the best of my knowledge the metal signs have held up and only a small amount of graffiti collected on them.
The Pinelands Commission
In the midst of all of this The Pinelands Commission started looking into what was going on the Pinelands, specifically Wharton State Forest. I understand that a couple of the commissioners have visited various destruction sites and, of course, where not pleased by what they observed. Who would be! They , the Commission, announced they where going to look into the problem. Public testimony was no different from normal, the group opposed to motor vehicle travel restriction in Wharton suggested that the DEP has it all under control and there was no need for them to upset the proverbial apple cart and the group insisting the damage stop before the whole of Wharton is destroyed begging the commission to get involved. Recently, several Commission members have voiced their concern about the issue, one commissioner located over 170 wetlands areas that have been effected by off-road vehicle abuse and another has suggested perhaps there should be a law that an impounded vehicle that was caught abusing the Pinelands not be given back once a fine is paid but sold to recoup cost to repair the damages done. The Commissions staff is looking into validating the various destruction sites. So it appears the Commission is moving forward to deal with the problem.
Some Solid Results
This past weekend, Sunday June 5th, the major surviving Facebook group opposing the restrictions on travel by motor vehicle (no area was to be restricted to hiking, biking or horseback riding only motor vehicle traffic) in Wharton, Open Trails New Jersey (OTNJ), installed three
gates they manufactured at their cost to completely
block off the Jemima Mount Area (see accompany map) (my major fear is that the users of Jemima Mt. will now travel to Colliers Mill WMA area in Jackson where the destruction of a beautiful rolling hill forest is being carried out at a very fast pace)
These gates could be opened temporarily for seasonal events like hunting. Prior to this installation OTNJ was vehemently opposed to closing any trails/roads/paths that had previously been used by motor vehicles, regardless of whether it was even a legitimate road or just a push line created by the Fire Service to stop wild-fire. It took some time but OTNJ seems to have come to the understanding that you cannot protect Wharton, or any other Pinelands public lands, unless restrictions are put in place. Restricting vehicle access is very common practice in every state, it is even done in many of the Northern New Jersey Public lands.
In the recent past one of the founding members of OTNJ has asked me to work in conjunction with them, to paraphase…. “since we all have a common interest in the forest” on some project to help Wharton. I could not help with the gate installation because my strength is still limited from my surgery but I did photograph the event for DEP usage. As you can see from the images here
the gates are super and OTNJ did a wonderful job with their manufacture and installation.
I would like to suggest there is another project we can work in tandem on that will not cost money or volunteer time in the field. It is common knowledge that the culture of viewing our Pinelands as a motor sports arena is a result of the decades of the DEP and The Pinelands Commission issuing permits for off-road vehicle events in the Pine Barrens. Let’s face it, there is no motor sports event that includes off-road style vehicles that can do anything healthy for the Pine Barrens. It is common sense, it just can’t be beneifical. Also, there is no financial reward to the Pine Barrens, for the repair of damages that these events cause, and the minor fees that are collected to issue these permits is purely chicken feed to the States coffers or any of its commission. Folks in other states that forbid this type of public land use also own off-road vehicles and they find appropriate areas to use them without burdening their State Forest. There is no good reason, financially or environmentally, to stage such events in the Pine Barrens. So here could be our mutually cooperative goal: