Last summer the DEP announced the M.A.P. (Motorized Access Plan) for Wharton State Forest. This plan was an attempt at preventing damage done by off-road vehicles to certain areas of the forest. The plan called for the blanket closure of over 50% of the roads and trails that exist in Wharton State Forest.
Naturally, the public was outraged – not at the fact that there needs to be something done about damage caused by irresponsible ORV use, but that the plan was developed in secret without any consultation from the various user groups who make use of Wharton State Forest. The DEP did, however, solicit input from the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, a radical environmental group that has long advocated closing off the majority of the roads and trails through the Pine Barrens to motorized traffic. The most egregious part is that this plan was developed using grant money earmarked for the establishment and maintenance of recreational trails.
The DEP Commissioner’s office in Trenton was flooded with emails, letters, and phone calls. Finally, Commissioner Robert Martin (who was likely just as blindsided by the M.A.P. as the general public was) saw that it was imperative to get input from the people who use the forest. It wasn’t just motorized recreation groups that spoke out against the M.A.P. either: sportsmen, botanists, herpetologists, hikers, canoers, equestrians, historians, photographers, geologists, and even other environmentalists spoke out against the plan. The resounding cry was that everyone acknowledges the problem of irresponsible ORV use, but a blanket closure (that would be largely ignored by the scofflaws that cause all of the problems anyway) wouldn’t be effective. Everyone wanted to be part of the solution but wanted a more transparent and fair approach to figuring out what areas should be targeted for closure.
While the DEP was engaging the public the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation began trying to spin the story of the M.A.P. by taking reporters out to the most damaged areas (that nobody would have argued should stay open), issuing press releases full of blatant mistruths, and characterizing anybody who was against the M.A.P. as advocating for turning Wharton State Forest into a “private ORV park.” Fortunately, most reasonable people saw through these groups’ cynical attempts at controlling the discussion.
Ultimately the DEP decided to put the M.A.P. on hold while they gathered more information and worked towards crafting a plan that would protect the most sensitive areas in the Pine Barrens while maximizing the amount of access that would stay available to the public. The PPA then embarked on another spin campaign, camping out in Trenton to harangue legislators by showing scenes of over the top ORV destruction as they entered the capitol building, attempting to flood the DEP Commissioner’s office with letters from their supporters, and taking out a rather misleading advertisement on a billboard just steps away from the DEP’s office.
Now they’re attempting an end run around the DEP by appealing directly to the Pinelands Commission, the advisory body that sets the rules governing development and protection in the Pine Barrens. Their goal: to have the Pinelands Commission command the DEP to implement the M.A.P., despite the massive outcry from the public against it.
The commission is considering using the 2014 USGS topographic maps as a baseline for what roads should be open. The issue there is that in 2009, for cost savings purposes, the USGS stopped tracking unimproved roads, instead relying on other sources of data provided by commercial GIS organizations, that has proved to be largely incomplete. As a result, the last valid baseline should be the 1997 edition maps that show the majority of roads through Wharton State Forest. Those maps are the ones that the USGS refers people to when they ask about a more complete road map. Incidentally, the DEP sells the 1997 maps in the Batsto and Atsion ranger stations and has told people that they’re allowed to drive on any road that appears on them, provided the road is not marked as being closed to motorized traffic.
NJPineBarrens.com and Open Trails NJ are taking the position that:
We support using a USGS Topographical map to establish a baseline of roads, however the 1997 map must be used as it is last complete map of roads in Wharton State Forest.
We believe that the Pinelands Commission act as an advisor to the DEP and provide a recommendation, but not compel, the DEP to take a specific action. The DEP is in the best position to develop a plan to protect Wharton State Forest.
To prevent another debacle like the first iteration of the M.A.P. we’re encouraging people to get out in front of the issue and contact the Pinelands Commission immediately. You can easily contact them by going to this link, filing out the form, and clicking submit. We’ve prepared some sample text to use or modify as you see fit.
To Whom It May Concern:
While I agree that USGS topographical maps should be used to develop a baseline of roads in Wharton State Forest, the 2014 map is not valid for this purpose. In 2009 the USGS stopped tracking unimproved roads for cost savings reasons and instead relied on other external sources of data, which are largely incomplete. “Unimproved roads” are the primary type of roads that traverse Wharton State Forest. As as result, the last valid documented baseline for Wharton State Forest is contained in the 1997 USGS topographical map, which is the last edition of the USGS map to contain an accurate record of the roads through the forest.
Further, I do not believe it is appropriate for the Pinelands Commission to compel the DEP or other agencies to take specific action with regards to the Wharton Motorized Access Plan, but rather the Commission should act as an advisor to the DEP. As a result of the recent issues and firestorm around the MAP, the DEP is now aware of what needs to be done and should be given the time to develop a new plan, which should include increased enforcement and education. By compelling action at this time, there could be unintended consequences that might actually hinder the DEP and State Park Police from resolving the current issues with irresponsible ORV use. The DEP is in the best position to determine, with input from the public, the best course of action to follow.
This morning the Pinelands Preservation Alliance released an email blast urging people to support the Wharton State Forest Motorized Access Plan. Rather than coming up with ways to balance environmental protection and public access to the forest, the PPA continues with their tired routine of inflammatory rhetoric, misleading statements, and utter contempt for those against the MAP.
For a long time, I’d been an ardent supporter of the PPA’s efforts at protecting the pinelands. They fought hard against the BL English pipeline, a project that I still oppose and feel is a far greater threat to the Pinelands than motorized vehicles. They’ve released some excellent video podcasts showing the history of the ghost town of Harrisville and the story of the Atsion mansion. They work tirelessly to keep the Pinelands Commission accountable to the mandate of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan. Today, though, all of this is changing.
Here are some of the untruths they, and some of their hard-liner supporters, are spreading.
Fallacy #1: They have claimed that the only people opposing the MAP are off-road-vehicle enthusiasts.
Reality: The people speaking out against the MAP all come from varied backgrounds and represent a wide range of interests. One of the founders of OpenTrailsNJ, a coalition promoting fair access to the forest for everybody, is a card carrying member of the PPA. The town councils of seven Pinelands towns have all passed resolutions agreeing that the MAP was ill-conceived. I myself am a photographer, amateur historian, and have run this website for over twelve years. I’ve spoken to several well-respected environmentalists who feel just as strongly as I do that the way that the MAP is not a workable idea. Sportsmen are particularly affected as most of their hunting spots can only be accessed using the network of smaller roads and trails that would be closed under the MAP. Kayakers looking to paddle the smaller tributaries of the Mullica and Batsto are out of luck as now the only “easy” access to the water are at the crowded official state launching sites. These are just a few of the types of people who do not support the MAP as it was originally intended.
Drumming up support is much easier when you speak in hyperbole and try to vilify your opponents. In this case, the PPA’s statements are not backed up by fact.
Fallacy #2:The damage at Wharton State Forest has hindered fire suppression efforts and search and rescue due to impassable roadways.
Reality: The claim that fire suppression efforts have been hampered is without merit. It’s been claimed that some fire equipment has gotten stuck while responding to fires. There’s so many variables involved that could lead to a vehicle getting stuck. What was the condition of the tires on the vehicle? Was the driver paying attention? Was the road adequately maintained? Was it undermined by flooding?
Their claims break down under scrutiny. During the implementation of the MAP crews under the direction of Wharton Superintendent Rob Auermuller blocked off a number of roads with dead fallen trees in an effort to prevent motorized traffic. But wouldn’t that also block first responders as well, causing delays as crews would have to work to move the numerous heavy trees from the roadway? Or how about the fact that both the fire chief and the EMTs in Green Bank stood up and argued that they had not been consulted about by the state at all? How can the PPA claim that the MAP will benefit first responders and increase access to the forest when they weren’t even consulted?
No, it’s more compelling and inflammatory to blame everything on “reckless” ORV drivers, and have your employees show up at town hall meetings waving signs that say “Protect Fire Fighters’ Lives!” Fortunately most people see the ridiculousness for what it was – a desperate attempt to try to sway support to their side. Maybe the next sign will say “Support the MAP! Think of the Children!”
Fallacy #3:Enforcement of illegal off-roading activities has been difficult without a map clearly designating areas for motorized vehicle use and areas where motorized vehicles are prohibited. The damage will not stop until we have a Motorized Access Plan (MAP).
Reality: The state has, for decades, marked certain areas as being closed to motorized vehicles. Unfortunately, a small number of people have ignored those signs and continued to damage those areas. The damage is not happening because people are unsure where they can drive – those areas have been clearly marked off as being off-limits. The dirty little secret is that the state and the PPA both know when, how, and where the damage is occurring. The PPA even has an interactive map on their website showing where the damage happens. The damage is happening because of the state’s lackadaisical approach to backing up their closures with law enforcement patrols.
One Sunday afternoon in 1986 eighteen conservation officers issued 112 summonses for illegal activity in Greenwood Wildlife Management Area, an area that is one hundred thousand acres smaller than Wharton State Forest. Today it’s unusual for there to be more than two officers out on patrol out in Wharton at any given time. Those patrols are usually centered around camp sites where it’s easier for an officer to issue a summons for someone cracking open a beer than bust someone causing ecological damage. But this is through no fault of the Park Police! Over the years, funding has siphoned away by Trenton, leaving the State Park Police under staffed and under funded, and unable to properly patrol the forest.
Yet the MAP makes no provision for enforcing these closures. There’s no funding increase for the park police. The PPA is simply advocating for a new look to a decades-long failed policy of forest management and hoping for the best. That’s the kind of attitude that will lead to Wharton being closed off entirely as the forest continues to be damaged.
Fallacy #4:The state released a plan to protect the forest by placing some roads off-limits to motorized vehicles in August while leaving 225 miles open for vehicles.
Unfortunately, due to opposition from some motorized recreationists, the final plan will not be released until after a series of stakeholder meetings in October and a public meeting on November 5th.
In a disappointing move, the Department of Environmental Protection removed the draft MAP from their website in September.
Reality: The state removed the draft MAP plan from the website because they did not expect the outcry that erupted when 58% of the road and trail network was closed off without public notice. It took seven towns to come up with resolutions against the MAP before they begrudgingly realized that maybe they should consider what the public has to say.
The stakeholder meetings will allow representatives of various interest groups to meet with the DEP and, hopefully, come up with a new plan that will balance environmental protection with fair access to the forest. Every reasonable person realizes that there are areas of the forest that need to be closed off and given time to recover. One of the main problems of the MAP, besides the veil of secrecy that surrounds it, has been the state’s rationale behind closing off vast portions of the forest that neither are damaged or in danger of being damaged.
A closer look into the language that the PPA is using is disturbing.“Unfortunately, due to opposition from some motorized recreationists, the final plan will not be released until after a series of stakeholder meetings in October and a public meeting on November 5th.” To me that sounds like the PPA is disappointed that the public will get a chance to have a voice in the revised MAP. They’re not interested in coming up with a MAP that is fair to everybody. When did the PPA become the sole arbiter of how the forest should be accessed? Wharton State Forest was purchased with public funds to provide recreational space for the residents of New Jersey, not to become the PPA’s private walled garden.
Fallacy #5:The opposition to the MAP have tried to make this a public access issue. This is not about stopping people from visiting the state forests. In fact people won’t be able to spend time in Wharton if this destruction continues.
Reality: How is this not a public access issue? Even the PPA realizes that the public will be excluded in this statement on their website (one third of the way down): “Some people are justly worried that the people doing harm will ignore the rules and continue to use the informal sand roads, while law-abiding citizens will be the only ones excluded from driving on roads they have used for many years.”
The PPA claims that there are 274 miles of road left open and that this should “be enough.” Given the amount of outcry from the public and the sweeping impact that this change will have on people, it clearly is not. The roads left open are wide and heavily trafficked. Anybody looking to explore “off the beaten path” or find solitude in the pines, much like people have been doing for hundreds of years, is going to be sorely disappointed. The PPA claims that no spot in the woods is more than one mile from an open road yet they neglect to take into account the ease of getting lost while bushwhacking a mile through a swamp, the pain of the pushing through stands of choking briars that rip at your extremities, exposure to disease carrying insects, nor the the danger of dehydration during the sweltering New Jersey summer. They don’t take into consider the person who now has to drag a hundred-pound kayak that mile to get to the launching spot that they once were able to responsibly drive to. They forget the hunters who would have to shoulder two-hundred pound bucks back to their truck. These are kinds of people that, for decades, have driven responsibly down the roads that the PPA now advocates closing.
It’s no lie that irresponsible ORV drivers have caused damage to Wharton and that some areas need to be closed and allowed to recover. Through the stakeholder meetings the PPA has a chance to enter into a positive, constructive dialog with people who might not necessarily share their point of view, but are willing to work together to find a compromise that everyone can live with.
I once felt that the PPA was a overall force for good. It’s a terrible shame that the PPA is so unwilling to be part of a reasonable solution and continuing to advocate for a policy that steamrolls the rights of the public out of the way. Through inflammatory rhetoric, half truths, misleading signs their supporters have brought to town council meetings, and the obnoxious social media posts by some of their employees, the PPA has done more to hurt their public own image than any anti-MAP person could have done.
It kills me to have to write this, but today I am ashamed to say that I ever supported these people.
The DEP recently released a FAQ addressing what they felt was misinformation about the new Wharton Motorized Access Plan. The only misinformation about the MAP has been provided by the DEP. Here is a step by step analysis of their responses. The DEP’s comments are italicized for clarity.
What is the Wharton State Forest Motorized Access Plan?
The Wharton State Forest Motorized Access Plan is designed to make the many activities available in the Forest accessible to visitors driving on-road motor vehicles, while also preserving and protecting the Forest’s precious and irreplaceable natural environment.
The Plan includes a detailed map that shows the 225 miles of open roads within the Forest and informs both first-time and long-time visitors to the park of the many opportunities to enjoy this beautiful and unique environment.
The claims that the Wharton MAP improves access to the forest is a blatant lie. Over half of the roads and trails in Wharton State Forest are being closed to motor vehicles, preventing users of the forest – most of whom have no interest in “four wheeling” – easy access to places that they have historically been free to roam. While some roads and trails have been damaged by irresponsible off-road vehicle use, the MAP provides no plan for the enforcement of these road closures. Without effective enforcement those who would carelessly damage the forest’s precious and irreplaceable natural environments would be free to continue their destruction while the overwhelming majority of the forest’s users would be closed off from huge swaths of public land.
Why is the State Park Service implementing this Plan?
The State Park Service is implementing this plan to ensure wide and safe access to the Forest while also ensuring that the Forest is protected for today’s visitors and future generations.
The funding for developing this plan was provided by the federal government to promote better access to the Forest for on-road motor vehicles and to protect the safety of the many visitors using the park on foot, bicycle, or horseback.
The DEP has implemented the MAP unilaterally and without the opportunity for public comment. As a result of this back alley deal roads have been marked closed prior to any public announcement being made. The DEP had planned to wait until the end of the summer to announce the MAP, after it had closed many trails, but were forced to move the announcement forward to perform damage control over the widespread outrage at the secrecy of the closures. Their secrecy has been so complete that even elected officials in Trenton have been unaware of this plan.
The funding for the plan came from the Recreational Trails Grant Program, a Federal Highway Administration program designed to provide provide funds to states looking to develop and maintain recreational trails and trail-related facilities for both motorized and non-motorized recreational trail uses. Funding for the program is provided by federal taxes collected on gasoline. Interestingly, the State’s grant application makes no mention of road closures at all. Had they done so it is possible that the grant would not have been awarded.
What will the Wharton State Forest Motorized Access Plan accomplish?
The new Motorized Access Plan will:
Promote responsible recreation in the Forest.
The overwhelming majority of the visitors of Wharton State Forest use the road and trail system responsibly. These people will be disproportionally punished by the implementation of the MAP. Roads and trails that have been open for public use for decades, if not centuries, are now suddenly closed with no warning given.
Increase awareness and interpretation of the impacts motorized recreation can have on the Forest resources.
It’s true: The MAP brochure shows some pretty grim images of off-road devastation which are totally inflammatory and do not represent the impact that the majority of the people who drive on Wharton’s sand roads and trails have.
Improve stewardship and protection of the natural and cultural resources in the Forest.
One of the DEP’s jobs is to provide stewardship and protection of the natural and cultural resources of the forest. This would be the case even if the MAP was not implemented. As far as stewardship of the forest goes, there are many main roads that have been ill-maintained for years, and many historic buildings such as cotton mill at Atsion or the entire ghost town of Friendship have been lost from neglect or arson due to the state’s particular brand of “stewardship.”
Focus maintenance efforts on the designated routes.
The roads that are left open are all “main” roads through the forest that should have always been adequately maintained.
Promote access to new visitors.
This is one success story of the MAP. A map showing all of the roads and trails through Wharton, in even greater detail than the somewhat outdated USGS topographic maps of the area, would help guide both new and old visitors safely throughout the forest. Road closures are not necessary to help guide those visitors.
Improve coordination and access for emergency response including forest fires, search and rescue operations and severe storm response.
The state has been closing some roads by barricading the way with freshly cut or dead fallen trees. Far from allowing swift access for emergency first responders, the crews will be held up. They will be losing valuable time clearing fallen trees from the road during a potentially life-threatening emergency.
Streamline and coordinate education and enforcement efforts.
The Wharton MAP makes no provisions for either education or enforcement efforts.
How many miles of roads are open for on-road motor vehicles under the new plan?
Approximately 225 miles of routes throughout the Forest will be OPEN for public motorized access. That is equivalent to almost twice the length of the New Jersey Turnpike. The majority of all roads within the Forest will remain open for public motorized access.
The fact that the mileage of the roads left open in Wharton is twice the length of the turnpike is irrelevant. Just as you’re not going to develop a true appreciation for the pinelands by driving through it on the parkway, you won’t get the sense of the wonder that the Pine Barrens has to offer on the wide, crowded sand roads that are now the only ones left open to the public. Remember, over 50% of the existing roads and trails have been CLOSED for public motorized access. Those roads, already crowded, are going to get much worse.
How is this new Plan different from previously designated motorized access within Wharton State Forest?
The majority of all routes that have been designated for motorized public use in the past will remain open to public motorized access. See attached maps from 1997 and 2003. They are very similar.
There has never been a public announcement stating what roads and trails were designated for motorized vehicles in the history of Wharton State Forest. Previously, road closures were small, targeted, and adequately marked with signage. The maps that the DEP’s FAQ refers to are maps that have been handed to people reserving campsites and only show various “unimproved sand roads” due to their small scale. Those maps were never intended to be used as a road map to show what areas were open or closed.
Are the non-designated routes (or dotted lines) on the M.A.P completely closed to the general public?
No. All non-designated routes will remain open to foot traffic, horseback riding and bicycling.
True, provided that the road you’re looking to travel down has not been physically barricaded with obstacles.
How will this plan affect my ability to get to my favorite locations within Wharton State Forest?
No part of the 125,000-acre Wharton State Forest is more than about one mile from a paved road or a sand road that is designated “open” to on-road motor vehicles under the M.A.P.
That might be true, but that mile that you have to traverse to get to a spot that was once conveniently located next to a road might now lie behind a mile of tangled briars, an impassable cedar swamp, or a river that would be dangerous to ford. Plus, if you were a kayaker looking to launch at your favorite secluded spot, or a photographer laden down with heavy gear, how feasible is it to bushwhack a mile or more through the woods to get to a spot that once was easily accessible? Not to mention the risk of exposure to poison ivy and disease carrying insects increases the more time you spend crashing through the forest getting to where you need to go.
Will I still be able to drive to historic sites in the Forest?
Yes. The M.A.P. directs visitors to many sites of historic significance throughout the Forest.
The majority of the “touristy” historic sites such as Batsto, Atsion, and Harrisville are all reachable via paved state or county roads. Reaching the more obscure historic sites that were already difficult to reach will now require a lot more effort.
Will I still be able to drive to kayak and canoe launch sites in the Forest?
Yes. The M.A.P. directs visitors to designated kayak and canoe launching sites throughout the Forest. Parking is available at the Forest’s launch sites that are accessible by motor vehicle.
Will disabled visitors have access to the Forest?
The Americans with Disabilities Act and the State Park Service policy regarding Use of Mobility Devices will ensure disabled visitors can access the Forest.
The wording of this is too vague. How exactly does the MAP make provisions for park visitors protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act?
Can I bring my ATV on these designated routes?
No. ATVs are not permitted on any lands administered by the State Park Service.
Every day there are dozens of ATVs buzzing through the forest due to the lack of enforcement by the state. The MAP makes no provisions to address this.
Will approved enduros continue to be permitted in the State Forest?
Yes. Enduros will continue to be permitted by authorizing one-day Special Use Permits. This Plan will not change the present Enduro Management Plan and the SPS policy regarding Organized Competitive and Recreational Motorized Vehicle Events and Activities.
In recent years the DEP has made the process of obtaining those special one-day Special Use Permits an increasingly arduous task. Just as the DEP has waged war against the enduro riders (a group who have been holding events in Wharton State Forest since the 1960s) they now are waging war against vehicular access. What group will be the next target?
Will Forest Firefighters or other emergency responders still have access to the Forest?
Yes, in fact the Plan will improve emergency response. Focused maintenance and repairs will facilitate quicker response time, access, and safety for first responders. A secondary and key benefit of the M.A.P. is that these designated routes are also primary fire breaks, thus also improving access to first responders.
Another bald faced lie: The State is actively placing physical barriers on some of the closed roads, making it difficult if not impossible for emergency crews to access roads in time critical situations.
The designated routes on the MAP, roads that have been there for centuries in some cases, have always been fire breaks. The MAP does not provide any additional protection for forest fires – in fact it hinders them.
Was a new law passed to allow this Motorized Access Plan to happen?
No, the NJ State Park Service Administrative Code has long authorized the prudent control of motorized vehicles on state lands.
In 200s DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell prohibited the use of Class II ORVs (quads, dirt bikes, etc. – anything that was not street legal in New Jersey) on state owned land. As a “concession” to the users of those vehicles the state was tasked with building two new off-road vehicle parks to provide a safe, controlled environment where those vehicles could be used. Fourteen years later there has only been one park opened, and even that one is currently closed.
The DEP knew that their “concessions” would make it easier for this plan to be approved but they knew that it would be a herculean effort to get those parks built to accommodate the users that were thrown out of the forest. Now the off-road vehicle ban is extending to all Class I ORV’s (any car, truck, or SUV legally allowed to operate on the street). What fake “accommodations” will the state try to make here?
The only sane, fair control of motorized vehicle access on state lands are the targeted closures that have appeared here and there in the forest. These have been marginally effective, but a lack of enforcement has still allowed people to enter and abuse those areas.
When the MAP first appeared online it did not have the label “draft” on it like the one linked from the official Wharton State Forest website which that link does not point to. This is another half baked attempt at the DEP’s damage control. Make no bones about it, that “draft” map is the final product.
Will stakeholders have a chance to express their views about this plan?
Yes, a series of meetings are being scheduled. The first ones are anticipated to occur in September 2015. These meetings will provide representatives of various stakeholders and user groups with a detailed presentation regarding the M.A.P. and an opportunity for feedback.
It’s important to note that the Wharton MAP has been designed and approved without the input of the stakeholder groups. Now that there has been widespread outrage at the plan and legislators now questioning it the DEP is interested in meeting with certain “stakeholders.” It seems unlikely that, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement the MAP, the state would incur the cost of changing the plan which would show that the DEP’s actions were a waste of grant money.
How can I get notice of when the stakeholder meetings will take place?
Invitations will be sent out to the stakeholder groups. Leaders of interested organizations that use the Forest should contact the State Park Service at (609) 704-1964 to be sure they are included.
Where can I send my comments on the M.A.P.?
Individuals can send their comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Those interested in fighting against the MAP implementation are better served by signing the petition against it. It’s important that your elected officials know your feelings, rather than have them be ignored by the people monitoring that email address.
Is this M.A.P. ever going to change? Will more roads/routes be opened?
Yes, this M.A.P. is a work in progress. The State Park Service will continually evaluate the effectiveness of the M.A.P. to ensure that it meets the goals of promoting access to the Forest and preserving and protecting the Forest’s environment.
It seems unlikely that, once a road is closed, it would ever reopen. There are no formal provisions for determining under what a criteria a road might be reopened. If anything, additional closures are probably the only changes to the MAP.
Will the State Park Service be blocking non-designated motorized recreation routes with trees, guardrails, gates, or other barricades?
No. Many areas may be posted with appropriate signage but access will remain open for enforcement, first responders, forest fire personnel, and other permitted uses.
This is a lie. The State has already blocked several roads and trails with fallen trees.
The following is a blog post from the Pinelands Adventures website that I was asked to post on NJPineBarrens.com. In the interest of presenting facts to our readers and allowing you to come to your own conclusions I present this here. — Ben Ruset
With the recent release of the New Jersey State Park’s Motorized Access Plan (MAP) in Wharton State Forest, a number of questions have been raised about the plan, Pinelands Adventures and Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA). Below are some answers to those questions. I encourage you to reach out to us to learn more about our programs, our plans for the future and to stop in and visit.
What is Pinelands Adventures?
Pinelands Adventures was created by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance to share the Pine Barrens with everyone through low-impact, nature recreation and learning experiences. It is our hope that when people experience the Pinelands they will come to appreciate how important this natural resource is to all of us and will want to protect it.
We offer self-guided paddling trips and livery services on the Batsto and Mullica Rivers, and also offer programs to include more fun and educational guided trips for individuals and families as well as scouts and youth groups, churches and other organizations.
As the director of Pinelands Adventures, I’d like to speak to some of the concerns and objections we have heard about this initiative.
PPA did not create Pinelands Adventures to “make a profit.”
Pinelands Adventures is wholly owned by PPA and all revenues it collects go back into running its recreation and education programs for the public, schools and community organizations.
With grants from charitable foundations, PPA purchased the property and equipment of Adams Canoe Rental from Wayne and Maureen Adams, who were ready to retire from the livery business after more than forty years. PPA has invested much more than the purchase price in order for Pinelands Adventures to become operational. Wherever possible, we bought goods and services from local businesses and with local contractors.
The purpose of Pinelands Adventures has never been and will never be to make money for PPA. Eventually, we hope to be able to generate enough revenue to cover our expenses but we expect that to take a few years.
Pinelands Adventures does not have any unfair advantage over other liveries.
Pinelands Adventures pays all of the same taxes as any other business including property and sales taxes. In addition, we pay numerous fees for business licenses and permits.
Pinelands Adventures is not trying to compete with or take business from the other liveries in the area. In fact, by raising awareness of the activities available in the Pines, we expect that people will look into our offerings as well as those of Mullica River Marina/Bel Haven and Mick’s Canoe Rental. We know and hope that people will choose to take trips with these fine establishments as well as Pinelands Adventures.
Pinelands Adventures is also governed by the same Wharton State Forest rules as everyone else, including the new Motorized Access Plan.
Pinelands Adventures is made up of people who care deeply about the forest.
Pinelands Adventures currently employs six people, two full-time and four part-time. When hiring a staff it was important to our mission to hire individuals who were from the community and brought local knowledge of the Pinelands. I am a 20-year resident of Salem County, New Jersey, and our team includes residents of Shamong, Tabernacle, Southampton, Marlton and Atco. Two of our staff members are 30+ year veterans of Adams Canoe Rental. John Volpa, Pinelands Adventures Director of Education, is a life-long resident of southern New Jersey with a passion for the Pine Barrens who taught sixth grade environmental science at Indian Mills Memorial School and spearheaded the creation of the Black Run Preserve.
It is extremely important to PPA and to all of us who work at Pinelands Adventures to be good stewards of the rivers and forests where we take people to experience one of the world’s truly exceptional natural resources. We will limit traffic and impact on the rivers and we will always be open to constructive ideas about how to help take good care of Wharton State Forest.
Wharton State Forest Motorized Access Plan and Pinelands Adventures
With the release of the MAP there have been a number of concerns raised about the MAP and Pinelands Adventures’ role and relationship to the State Park Service. I believe many of these concerns are based on misunderstandings, and I hope to clarify these points:
What is the Motorized Access Plan?
The MAP was created by the State of New Jersey as a means of reducing the damage that some motorized vehicle users have done to natural resources (and to key roads the Forest Fire Service needs to do its job). It consists of a driving map and brochure that delineates the 225 miles of sand and gravel roads that are open to motor vehicle traffic. You can download the Motorized Access Plan Map here. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection also release an FAQ about the Plan recently.
Does the MAP give Pinelands Adventures favorable access?
No. We have to operate by the same rules that others operate by when accessing roads in Wharton State Forest. Pinelands Adventures is in the same boat as Micks, Bel Haven and the general public. In fact, we and the other liveries must apply for permits and pay fees in order to operate in Wharton State Forest. The State Forest tells all the liveries where they are permitted to put people into the rivers and take them out, and all these access points are also open to any member of the public.
Does Pinelands Adventures support the MAP?
We support the efforts of the New Jersey State Park Service and Department of Environmental Protection to protect the natural and cultural resources of Wharton State Forest. We see the evidence nearly every day of illegal activities and the behavior of people who seem to have little concern that their activities are wrecking roads for others or causing irreparable harm to sensitive areas of the forest.
It is too bad the State Forest finds this step is needed, as it does mean that responsible users cannot drive along some sand roads they have been used for a long time. While these roads are still open to hiking and other activities, some places may by inaccessible to those who used to get there by car or truck. The State Forests do have policies to provide special accommodations for those with disabilities. We hope that over time some roads will be reopened to cars as the culture of destruction disappears and the State Forest can rely on all visitors to respect the forest.
It is important to understand that the plan was created by the State and not by Pinelands Adventures.
Isn’t more law enforcement required to make this work?
Yes! We believe that more resources (staff, equipment, etc.) are needed for the State Park Police to enforce the laws and stop illegal activity in Wharton State Forest.
What is Pinelands Adventures’ relationship to the State Park Service?
We hold a permit to operate as a canoe and kayak livery to access Batsto and Mullica Rivers and to rent boats to campers at Atsion Lake. We function the same way that Adams Canoe Rental operated for more than 40 years and as the liveries do in Wharton State Forest.
If you have questions about the State’s Motorized Access Plan, you may contact the Wharton State Forest office. You may also view the Motorized Access Plan Map here.
Rob Ferber is the Director of Pinelands Adventures.
More than two weeks after volunteers under the direction of Wharton State Forest superintendent Robert Auermuller began to close a significant portion of the roads in Wharton State Forest to motorized vehicle traffic, a firestorm of fury and outrage has ignited across social media. The heated conversation is coming from both supporters of fair access to the forest as well as those who support the road closings. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of confusion and misinformation from both sides. This breeds anger and makes it unlikely that there will be any compromise or understanding. This is an attempt to set the record straight and make it easier for folks to understand the issues at stake.
Myths and misinformation regarding the road closing argument:
“If you are against the closings you want no enforcement or road closings at all” – This is a common refrain from supporters of the closings. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. A majority of people watching this issue support targeted road closings and increased enforcement over just blanket road closings. There is no reason why roads with no environmental damage should be closed. These roads have been open and free of environmental destruction since before the time that Joseph Wharton owned the Wharton tract.
“Everyone against the closings drives so-called ‘monster trucks’ or modified 4WD vehicles and identify themselves as part of the ‘off-road community.’” This is untrue. The majority of people speaking out are people who drive ordinary vehicles down the old sand roads that wind through the woods. They’re not looking to destroy the environment, they’re looking to enjoy it respectfully.
“The closed roads lead to areas where there has been environmental damage.” In some cases, yes. In most, no. Many of the roads that have been closed are just connectors between main roads or otherwise secondary trails that lead to former homesteads, historic sites, etc. In some cases the damaged areas were not caused by ORV traffic at all but are being presented as such. (The so-called “vernal pool” off of Burnt Mill Rd. caused by the state digging out earth and clay for road repairs is one example.)
“This will help preserve the pinelands from damage caused by irresponsible ORV use.” – Road closures are not new in the pinelands. Two very famous examples are the areas known as “quarter mile” and “hidden lakes” that have been closed off to motorized vehicle traffic for years. Both sites still receive considerable amounts of traffic. Without enforcement, road closures are ineffective. Targeted closures make it easier for the rangers and park police to patrol specific areas.
“The PPA closed the roads, probably to make it easier for the pipeline to be built.” – This is a huge departure from reality. Firstly, the proposed route of the BL England pipeline does not run anywhere near Wharton State Forest. Secondly, while many disagree with the PPA’s stance on motorized vehicles in the Pine Barrens, they have worked tirelessly to fight against the construction of the pipeline. It’s asinine to think that somehow they now support the project. Thirdly, the PPA is a private non-profit organization that has no ability to open or close roads. They do, however, lobby hard to have the state implement their agenda.
“The PPA is advocating these closures to increase revenue to their for-profit arm, Pinelands Adventures.” – The PPA has been advocating for large scale road closures for years, way before Pinelands Adventures existed. That said, Pinelands Adventures makes money for the PPA which leads to them having that much more lobbying power to close even more access off from the general public.
“The reality is that none of these roads were intended for public motorized access.” – Rob Auermuller August 6, 2015 NBC 10 interview. – This is untrue. There are a number of roads now closed that show on modern topographic maps, historic topographic maps, and even Google street maps. These roads have been open to traffic since the late 19th century (at least). Compare the Motorized Access Plan map to the map layers on NJPB Maps.
“People are sawing down trees to make barriers across the roads.” – In some cases this is true, although in others the barriers are made from trees that have fallen naturally. There is no excuse for killing live trees to block off roads in the name of “preservation.”
“These closures will make it easier for hikers, equestrians, and firefighters to access Wharton.” – Given that the roads are being physically blocked by fallen trees this is patently untrue. While a hiker can get over the trees, horses and fire fighting equipment can not. Delaying a forest fire vehicle means that the fire only has more time to spread.
“This will prevent illegal dumping.” – The state has already increased enforcement of dumping laws by installing hidden cameras and conducting more intensive monitoring at known “dumping grounds” on state land. They are also examining the trash left behind for information that can be traced back to the source. This increased enforcement has resulted in revenue generated for the DEP as well as a decrease in illegal dumping. Additionally, most dumping takes place on the fringe areas of the State Forest. Little full scale dumping is seen in the heart of the State Forest, yet that is where the roads are being closed. In reality, the most visible contributor to dumping in the Pine Barrens has been the changes that the state has made regarding the disposal of televisions and computers. The process for disposing of a TV is now so inconvenient that people find it easier to just dump it in the woods. Having more convenient spots to drop off electronics or increasing the number of curb side pickups that take them away would do far more to eliminate that trash from the woods.
In a very disappointing turn of events, Wharton State Forest Superintendent Rob Auermuller and a team of volunteers have been posting “No Motorized Vehicles” signs on many of the forest sand roads that have been open to traffic for decades. According to Auermuller, this action is being taken to stop the environmental destruction caused by off-road vehicles.
It is true, there are many places were irresponsible use of ORV’s has caused damage to the environment. This has been a major, ongoing problem in Wharton and other state forests and wildlife management areas. In 2003 the DEP closed access to the woods for all non-street legal ORV’s – meaning that if you can’t legally drive one on a road in New Jersey, and it cannot be operated on state land. This includes quads, dirt bikes, and any vehicle that is not registered and insured. Today, twelve years later, you can still see people riding them in the woods.
Now, some of the roads are being closed to “Class 1 ORV’s”, which includes all vehicles that are licensed, registered, insured, and inspected, and can therefore legally operate on any road or highway of the State designated for vehicle traffic. That means your car, your truck, and your SUV and means that law-abiding citizens who have always driven through Wharton on some of these roads to explore, hunt, photograph, launch a canoe, or geocache won’t be able to unless they want to risk being cited and have to pay a costly fine.
Interestingly, the website for Wharton State Forest, and the websites for the NJDEP, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, and even Al Horner’s “Pine Barrens Under Siege” website make no mention of this action. So, essentially, these closures are being done with no oversight, no transparency, and no regard to the thousands of people who will be affected by this change. This outrageous action is an affront to the citizens of New Jersey and it is just pandering to a small, but vocal minority of people.
There is supposed to be a map of all of these closed roads, but it hasn’t been released yet. Planning for which roads will be closed off without the users of the forest being involved is not the way to do this! Without a map there’s no easy way to see what’s left open after superintendent Auermuller and his volunteers have virtually closed off access to our forest.
The sad fact is that the irresponsible drivers of ORVs, who have been breaking the law and damaging the environment, will not be dissuaded by some small signs. There are already areas that are closed to motor vehicles – “Quarter Mile” near Hampton Furnace and the “Hidden Lakes” near Old Half Way to name just two – are still being accessed by people who have no respect for the law. These are the people who will ignore the signs and drive on. Responsible people who follow the law, respect the environment, and just want to get away to nature cannot. How is that going to solve the problem?
The problem lies in enforcement. There is not enough funding to properly patrol Wharton State Forest. A few years ago a ranger told me that at any one given time there was a maximum of two rangers patrolling Wharton. Two people for 123,000 acres! No wonder every ORV policy the state has tried has been an abject failure – there’s been nobody around to enforce them! And how is this going to be any different?
A common argument I hear from supporters of this program is “just get out and walk.” Walking may be great for some people, but for the elderly and people who have reduced mobility, it’s just not an option. There have been many seniors on the NJPB Forums whose sole mode of enjoying the woods is by vehicle. Additionally, walking where you once did not have to increases your exposure to disease carrying ticks and painful chigger bites. Yuck! Even if you did park and hike on numerous occasions the Park Police have harassed members of the NJPineBarrens.com community for parking off to the side of a road.
I have been exploring the Pine Barrens since 1998. I consider myself an environmentalist. I love the Pine Barrens just as much as any other person. I currently do not even own any sort of ORV – I drive a Ford Taurus. So these arguments are not being made because I have any sort of agenda or ulterior motive. I just think that this is a wrongheaded policy that is being rammed down everyone’s throats silently by a few people that do have an agenda. And the net result of that agenda is to take away public access to as much of the Pine Barrens as possible.
There are some ways you can help:
Write your New Jersey Senator and Assemblymen. Forum member John has written an excellent letter that you can cut and paste into an email and easily find the email addresses of who it needs to go to.
Boycott Pinelands Adventures, the commercial arm of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. The PPA would love to sell you their “curated” view of the Pine Barrens and the money you spend there goes directly towards efforts like this to take away your access to the woods.
Spread the word. Let every person you know who enjoys the woods know what is going on. This has been happening out of the public eye, and by shining a light on it we can maybe roll this back and come up with real solutions to the ORV use problem that will actually work.