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Your Forest Under Attack: Road Closures in Wharton State Forest

This is important.

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.

Please keep checking this thread in the discussion forum for the latest information as this situation develops.