New Jersey state officials are considering increasing the number of trails that can be used by motorcycles in a Pinelands forest, angering environmentalists who say the possible policy change would represent the latest threat to the South Jersey tracts from off-road vehicles.
The Department of Environmental Protection is in talks with organizers of “enduro” rides in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest about renewing their access to forest single-track that has been banned since 2012, a restriction that the riders say reduces the challenge and appeal of their sport. Enduro events pit riders against the clock. Single-track racing uses trails that are only wide enough for one motorcycle at a time.
In an effort to identify areas where permitted trails could be added, the DEP has created a map of the forest that highlights “non-sensitive areas” where the motorcycle events might be held without disturbing wildlife or damaging habitat.
Any decision to reopen the single track would depend on a rigorous review by state biologists, foresters, and other officials, and there is no assurance that such a change would be implemented, said Bob Considine, a spokesman for the DEP.
“There have been no guarantees made to the clubs that existing ‘single-track trail’ will be adopted into the menu, only that they will be considered,” Considine said.
Enduro races are currently allowed on sand roads and firebreaks in state forests but not on single-track trails.
Opening up some single track would mean a change in the DEP’s existing policy which states that: “The creation or use of single-track trails for motorized use is prohibited.”
Even the possibility of such a change has set alarm bells ringing with some environmental groups who say that drivers of jeeps and all-terrain vehicles are already causing severe damage to sensitive parts of the Pinelands 1.1 million acres, and extra space for motorcycles would only increase those pressures.
Some critics reject the notion of “non-sensitive areas” in the Brendan T. Byrne forest, saying that DEP officials don’t have the data to legitimately make that designation.
“The whole idea that there are non-sensitive areas is completely ridiculous,” said Emile DeVito, manager of science and stewardship at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “The DEP is going to dictate to its staff that they look at the existing data which is incomplete because no one has ever bothered to survey within the state park to find out where the rare species are. The whole thing is based on nothing.”
DEP’s Considine said the designation of non-sensitive areas doesn’t mean they are not home to threatened or endangered species, and the areas are subject to review by state experts to determine “what we may or may not allow in these sections.”
Some of the single track at issue overlaps with forest roads and fire cuts where the motorcycles are currently allowed to go, and so the DEP is allowing the cycle clubs to use GPS to map the trails that have been created over the years but which did not have formal approval, Considine said.
The DEP’s map showing non-sensitive areas in the Brendan T. Byrne forest was obtained through a request under the Open Public Records Act by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, an environmental nonprofit that accuses the DEP of excluding some stakeholders from the discussion over trail access. But that doesn’t mean there is any secrecy about the evaluation process underway, said Considine.
“This intimation that we’re hiding something is ridiculous,” he said. “If PPA or any group wants a meeting or phone call to discuss before we get to a more final stage, they can just call and ask.”
The DEP’s assurances that any changes are far from a done deal failed to calm the fears of Jason Howell, stewardship coordinator at the PPA, who argued that the department will eventually allow the trails to be used.
“They seem to be committed to this position of allowing these dirt-bike races to occur in the forest itself, off of any road, and we will do everything we can to stop them,” Howell said.
Any change in policy would have to be agreed by staff at the Pinelands Commission.
Enduro riding has been allowed in Pinelands’ state forests for years, and there are now five annual events which have to take place between October 15 and April 15, Considine said.
The next event, called the Pine Barons Clock Run, is due to take place on April 9 on a 60-mile course through the Brendan T. Byrne, Wharton, and Bass River state forests where about 140 riders will have to stick to roads and firebreaks because any changes to the DEP policy will not be made by then.
Joe Springer, who as “trail boss” is responsible for laying out the course, said the existing ban on single-track use has deterred some riders and hurt the sport’s popularity by eliminating the challenge of weaving through miles of narrow wooded trails.
“When they took away the trails, they delivered a body blow to our sport,” he said.
Springer, 76, a former chairman of the Southampton Township Environmental Commission, denied that the sport of enduro is environmentally damaging, noting that it is tightly regulated by the DEP and the Pinelands Commission; that his event takes place only once a year; and that riders’ speeds are kept low, typically 18 miles per hour, by rules that reward riders who end closest to a prescribed total time.
Even his own rides to check out this year’s course have to be OK’d by the DEP, Springer said.
He rejected environmentalists’ claims that enduro riders, like four-wheel-drive enthusiasts, are irresponsible scofflaws who tear through the woods in search of high-speed thrills, oblivious to environmental consequences.
While a few behave that way, the law-abiding majority should not be penalized for the actions of a few individuals, Springer said.
“We are not the ogres some people make us out to be,” he said.
Springer showed a reporter the remains of a narrow woodland trail that he said had not been used for six or seven years because of the ban on single-track but which he would like to include in future events.
While state officials and park managers try to balance the demands of all user groups in the Pinelands’ state forests, some critics say motorcycles should simply be banned.
Al Horner, a Pinelands photographer and longtime campaigner against motorized access to the area, argued that the enduro events should be banned altogether because they damage habitat, disturb wildlife, and stop other users such as hikers and birdwatchers from quietly enjoying the forest.
“I’m calling for the end to these events because it has created this immense culture that they feel like they actually own the Pine Barrens,” said Horner, whose blog, ‘Pine Barrens Under Siege’ routinely draws defiant comments from the off-road vehicle community. “It’s literally the Wild West out there sometimes.”
But that’s far from reality for enduro riders, argued Tom Hedden, a member of the South Jersey Enduro Riders who also sits on a group of the East Coast Enduro Association that works with the DEP.
“The enduro riders are really well behaved,” Hedden said. “We go to the state agencies, we go to the Pinelands Commission; we bring in all the police, fire, EMS. We are the model citizens of people who go into the woods.”
Since the state’s single-track ban has reduced the number of enduro riders, New Jersey’s enduro clubs have struggled to make ends meet, making it harder to arrange organized events such as that on April 9, Hedden said.
If such events become a thing of the past, there will actually be more environmental damage to the Pinelands because more riders will simply do their own thing and carve their own trails into the forest with no regard for the rules, he predicted.
Hedden also dismissed critics’ claims that the DEP has a cozy relationship with enduro riders, saying that the current trail review is taking a lot longer than they had hoped.
“The people at Pine Barons feel like the rug was yanked out from underneath them by the DEP because they thought they were going to be part of the rollout of the new plan in Brendan Byrne, and it’s not,” Hedden said. “They are not getting any of the consideration of the conversation with the DEP which they were hoping they would.”