DEP shuts down parts of Pinelands to thwart drivers, limit crowds

Move comes after off-road drivers made the area ‘unsafe’, state says. The public lands will be off limits until September
File photo: Dirt-bike riders approach a vehicle at Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area in Ocean County.

New Jersey environmental officials closed parts of five Wildlife Management Areas in the Pinelands to all users because of what they said was unauthorized use by large crowds, creating an “unsafe environment.”

The areas are popular with off-road vehicle drivers who for years have drawn fierce criticism from other users such as hikers and birdwatchers. They accuse the drivers of destroying fragile natural areas and ignoring restrictions on access, while the drivers resist attempts by state officials to curb where they are permitted to take their vehicles.

The Department of Environmental Protection promised earlier this spring to set new rules on where the vehicles may and may not go in the Pinelands and said it would seek the buy-in of all users at public hearings due to start this summer.

Now, the DEP has blocked access for motorized and nonmotorized users alike to six areas in the state-owned tracts in an action that surprised advocates for both sides. (Five areas are affected, but there are two closures in one of them.)

The areas are at Cedar Lake, Greenwood Forest, Menantico Ponds, Wildcat Ridge, and Winslow — all former sand pits with large open areas that attract off-road vehicles such as pickup trucks, dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles. The agency published details and maps on which parts of those areas are now closed. The closures are in effect until Sept. 15.

‘Creating an unsafe environment’

“Due to large crowds of individuals and unauthorized activities creating an unsafe environment at relatively small areas within our over 350,000 acres WMA system, six localized areas … are being closed to public access,” the DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife said in a statement on May 25. “This difficult decision was made to protect the public, Conservation Police Officers and the surrounding habitat.”

The DEP said in a separate statement that the closed areas contain former quarry pits where swimming is not permitted. That makes them dangerous because of the pits’ depth and low water temperature. DEP representatives did not respond to questions about the size of crowds or whether the closures are part of the agency’s new policy on recreational access to the Pinelands.

Drivers are lawless, critics say, accusing them of using the Pinelands for rallies and raucous parties that they say have turned the vast forests of South Jersey into the state’s “Wild West.”

Jason Howell, a public lands advocate at the nonprofit Pinelands Preservation Alliance and a long-time foe of off-road driving in the area, said it looks like the closures are a “desperate” attempt to control congregations of off-roaders that he said can number in the hundreds.

“The situation seems to have dissolved to the point where the area is no longer safe for the public or for the conservation officers and staff,” he said.

In a statement, the nonprofit said the closure of recreational lands could be avoided if their uses such as hunting, swimming or camping were designated for certain areas.

“Unless we define what people can do on the land, it will be impossible to say what they cannot do. Pinelands Preservation Alliance would like to be a part of the solution and help the state to develop structured uses for these areas so that this unprecedented action does not need to be repeated,” the statement said.

DEP has struggled to gain control

The DEP has struggled for years to control the drivers. In 2015, it published a “Motorized Access Plan” that identified hundreds of trails and sand roads, and reduced the areas where the drivers may legally use their vehicles. But the plan was quickly withdrawn because of a storm of protest from the off-road lobby, according to critics.

The agency’s new acting commissioner, Shawn LaTourette, said the 2015 plan was in fact scrapped because officials hadn’t done enough to consult all categories of users. In an interview with NJ Spotlight News in April, he said there would be new regulations and permits, and tougher penalties for violators, but he hoped the upcoming public hearings will result in an agreement on how to meet the needs of all Pinelands users.

The closures prompted a storm of protest from the off-road vehicle community, according to John Druding, president of Open Trails New Jersey, which advocates for “responsible recreation” by motorized and nonmotorized users of the state’s forests.

Druding said his phone has been “blowing up all day” about the announcement. He predicted the action won’t stop drivers who were already using the areas illegally, while penalizing permitted users such as hikers or fishermen.

“Unless enforcement is stepped up, all this will accomplish is preventing law-abiding citizens from gaining access while the offenders will continue unabated,” he said.

The closures raise questions about whether the DEP will really engage all parties on the future use of the Pinelands, as it has promised to do, Druding said. “I suspect there will be a public backlash about this, and I hope they reconsider these actions and any similar actions they may be considering in the future.”

Dave Demsey, an off-road driver who lives on the edge of Wharton State Forest, predicted that the closures will have no effect on people such as ATV drivers who were already entering the areas illegally, and will continue to do so even if they are not officially allowed in.

“Just saying you’re not allowed back there or putting up a small pile of dirt isn’t going to stop people who don’t care about the law. It hasn’t stopped them over the past 20 years; it ain’t going to stop them now,” he said.