At nearly 125,000 acres, or 194 square miles, the Wharton State Forest is by far the largest tract of land within New Jersey’s state park system. It’s larger than counties Essex and Hudson combined and attracts over 800,000 visitors a year!
Located in the heart of the Pine Barrens, Wharton is notable for its variety of wildlife, including threatened and endangered plants and animals such as Chaff Seed and Pine Barren Tree Frogs. Hikers, bird watchers, paddlers, photographers and other nature lovers are drawn to the beauty and tranquility of the forest. The vast landscape includes the headwaters of the Mullica and Batsto rivers and Rancocas Creek.
Since the state acquired the land in the mid-1950s, the public has been permitted to travel almost the entire network of sand roads in licensed motor vehicles to explore the interior of the forest, visit historic ghost towns, and find places to set canoes and kayaks be able .
But in recent years, illegal motor vehicle use in Wharton has spiraled out of control. Irresponsible all-terrain vehicle (ORV) drivers have damaged many of the old dirt roads, illegally carved new roads and trails through pristine forests and wetlands, and destroyed riverbeds as part of the destructive hobbies known as “off-roading” and “madding.”
The result is widespread damage to land and waterways, severely eroded riverbanks, acres of barren landscapes and cavernous mud pits that were once the peaceful Pine Barrens wetlands and spring pools. In addition to harming wildlife and destroying streams, ORV damage has also rendered some roads so impassable that even powerful forest fire service vehicles have become stuck.
“The ecosystem is being torn apart,” said Dr. Emile DeVito, biologist at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “It’s an epidemic and incredibly destructive.”
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is now once again addressing the thorny question of how to contain ORV damage in the Wharton State Forest while still allowing law-abiding visitors to access the old dirt roads by motor vehicle.
On Tuesday, September 27, the DEP will hold a virtual public hearing, which is expected to be the first in a series of outreach sessions.
“Public engagement is critical to our mission to ensure the forest is a place for everyone to enjoy,” said DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette. “We therefore encourage the public and stakeholders to attend our virtual sessions and complete the survey to ensure a diversity of viewpoints.”
Back in 2015, the state proposed a new map showing which streets within Wharton are designated for motorized access and which are strictly for visitors on foot, bicycles, and horses. However, the plan was shelved after the state received a storm of complaints from many off-road vehicle groups and other recreational groups wanting unrestricted access to every corner of the forest.
The Sept. 27 meeting, beginning at 6 p.m., will include a demonstration of a new web-based survey and mapping tool that will allow park users to answer questions about their favorite recreational activities in the Wharton State Forest, such as fishing, hiking, boating and scenic driving. The survey allows participants to mark key areas on the interactive map tool, including natural and historical resources and places of personal importance. Public submissions are also accepted by post or email.
“Understanding how, when and where people recreate throughout the Wharton State Forest is critical for the State Park Service to develop plans that are representative of the diverse users visiting from across the state and country while protecting this nationally recognized unique environment,” said John Cecil, Assistant Commissioner of State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites.
The survey results will be used “to clearly define specific safe and legal routes for vehicle use while protecting culturally and environmentally sensitive areas,” the DEP said. The new mapping will also serve as a model for protecting other state-managed lands in the Pinelands that are being harmed by illegal ORV use.
In 2021, the Attorney General’s Office pushed through an increase in fines for illegal ORV use and damages. If a breach results in the damage or destruction of natural resources, an additional fine of five times the cost of the damage may be imposed. Efforts to curb illegal off-road vehicle traffic will be stepped up, according to DEP.
But right now, law enforcement staffing seems too small — and in far too many cases, too lenient — to be effective.
· Science-based restrictions that allow existing dirt roads to remain accessible to registered vehicles through the development of an official map of legal vehicle access within the Wharton State Forest.
· Stronger enforcement of long-ignored regulations on the use of ORV on public lands.
If you care about the Wharton State Forest and its plant and animal communities, please take this important public survey! The first step is to register for the September 27 meeting at http://njparksandforests.org/wharton/. The link also includes information about the survey and other public relations.
To learn more about the Wharton State Forest and its many resources, go to https://nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/parks/whartonstateforest.html.
For information on the Fix Our Parks initiative to improve state parks, forests and recreation areas, visit www.fixourparksnj.org/. The initiative was founded by four New Jersey non-profit organizations: the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the Highlands Coalition and the NY NJ Trail Conference.
To learn more about conserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at [email protected]
Tom Gilbert is Co-Executive Director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.