Environmentalists are criticizing the latest efforts by state officials to control access to Wharton State Forest by off-road vehicles, saying authorities won’t succeed in curbing the destruction of natural areas until they clearly define which roads are open to drivers and which are not.
Representatives of environmental groups and private citizens are urging the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Pinelands Commission to publish a map of all roads and trails within the 115,000-acre forest so that drivers can be in no doubt where they are permitted to drive, and to help law-enforcement officers and judges be better able to prosecute and convict those who are breaking the law.
The latest shots in the long-running battle over how to control destructive off-road vehicle use in the forest and other areas of the Pinelands were fired on Friday at the monthly meeting of the Pinelands Commission which has been under pressure from the environmental community to stop damage to forests and wetlands by vehicles such as jeeps, all-terrain vehicles, and so-called monster trucks.
Campaigners have lately switched their attention to the commission as their best hope for a solution to the problem after the DEP last year scrapped its own Motorized Access Plan — which detailed many roads and trails in the forest — saying it had not reached out to enough stakeholders.
The commission on Friday unveiled a data set identifying 296 “disturbed” sites in Wharton State Forest such as ponds, streams, and denuded stream banks. The data — based on GPS information and aerial mapping but not on in-person visits — classified the sites by degree of disturbance, their density, and whether they were along roads or in uplands or lowlands.
While the data set was welcomed by commissioners and environmental campaigners at the meeting as a valuable addition to the nature and location of damaged sites in the forest, it did not identify the roads and trails that are at the heart of the controversy over off-road use.
“It’s difficult to determine what exactly is a road, and that is exactly what this whole thing is about,” said Robyn Jeney, a research planner who presented the data. “A lot of times, it’s hard to tell the difference between sand roads and a disturbance.”
Environmentalists say many new trails have been carved through forests and wetlands by drivers who illegally go off established sand roads in search of rough terrain where they can test their vehicles and their driving skills. The new trails make it harder for drivers and law-enforcement officers to know what is legally permitted and what is not.
Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the commission, called the data set a “significant piece of work” that will help the DEP with recently stepped-up enforcement. She said it also will inform the restoration of damaged sites, and make it easier to monitor affected locations. But some public speakers said the new data won’t help curb the problem unless the authorities also release a detailed map showing where drivers may legally go, and which areas are off limits.
“We need a map if we are going to stop this,” said Emile DeVito, manager of science and stewardship at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “They need to know where they can be and where they can’t be.”
After dropping the Motorized Access Plan last year, the DEP has turned to stronger enforcement of existing laws in its efforts to reduce the damage caused by off-road vehicles.
Mark Texel, the DEP’s director of Parks and Forestry, said the department has dedicated more park police to enforcing access rules, increased fines for violators, and issued more tickets since March this year in an attempt to stop illegal off-road use.
Texel said the DEP has identified 11 of the most sensitive natural areas that need immediate protection, has repaired 44 miles of roads within the forest, and has launched a campaign to educate the public on the laws governing access to the forest.
The measures mean that off-road drivers no longer have unrestricted access to Wharton State Forest, Texel said, rebutting accusations by environmentalists that the DEP had capitulated to the off-road lobby when it withdrew its plan last year.
“The days of people having unfettered access to the forest are over,” he said.
Six state park officers, up from only two, are now assigned to patrol the forest, and they are writing more tickets, Texel said. From March to July this year, officers recorded 629 violations by off-road drivers, compared with 679 for all of 2015. They issued 388 summonses in the latest period compared with 446 for all of 2015, and gave 239 warnings, more than the 226 issued last year.
Violators now face fines of $250-$1,000; a fee to restore damage to the forest; a $500 impoundment fee, and charges for towing and storage of an impounded vehicle. “This could be a very expensive joy ride,” Texel said.
On Labor Day, six vehicles were impounded, 16 tickets issued, and three warnings given, he said. Texel also presented a record of calls to park police over Labor Day weekend in an attempt to rebut claims by campaigners that law enforcement failed to respond to volunteers who called a DEP hotline to report vehicles using prohibited areas in the forest.
It can be hard to convict someone if only the vehicle’s license plate is reported because it’s not clear who was driving, Texel said. But Commissioner Paul Galetta said under those circumstances, the registered owner of the vehicle should be held responsible. “Why would a judge not accept a license plate?” Galetta asked. “They do it at stop signs.”
While claiming some success for the new enforcement regime, Texel acknowledged it was only the beginning of a campaign to change a deep-rooted culture of off-roading in the Pinelands. “We’ve just really begun the process,” he said. “This is going to take years and years.”
Bill Caruso, a resident of Berlin Borough, called off-roading in the Pinelands a “cultural problem” that won’t be solved by the authorities’ attempts at enforcement. “I don’t think the government can fix this problem,” said Caruso, one of about two dozen members of the public who spoke at the meeting. “It’s really on us citizens to help.”
Carl Ford, wearing a T-shirt saying “I’m proud to be a Piney,” urged the commission to step up its efforts to control off-road driving, or risk losing the Pinelands where his family has lived since the mid-1700s. “I want to be able to take my grandchildren out into the pines,” he said.
Commission chairman Sean Earlen said officials from the commission and the DEP are due to discuss the next steps with stakeholders at an invitation-only meeting on October 26.