Debate arises over vehicle permit plan in Pinelands forest
A sandy dirt road cuts through the Wharton State Forest in the Pinelands. (Photo courtesy of N.J. Department of Environmental Protection)
Three Republican lawmakers from Burlington County are calling on state environmental officials to suspend plans to require people to pay to drive the sandy dirt roads of Wharton State Forest.
People who live in or visit the Pine Barrens haven’t had to pay to use roads in the 124,350-acre tract — and shouldn’t have to, said Sen. Jean Stanfield (R-Burlington).
“This is government overreach and something that New Jersey residents already pay for with their highest-in-the-nation taxes,” Stanfield said in a statement. Assemblymen Michael Torrissi and Brandon Umba echoed her concerns.
Department of Environmental Protection officials first announced plans to permit vehicles in Wharton in August, similar to a mobile sport fishing permit system at Island Beach State Park where people can pay $195 a year for permits to drive on the beach to go fishing.
Permits would allow the state to gauge vehicle use in New Jersey’s largest forest and protect sensitive natural and cultural resources, officials said then. About 800,000 people a year visit the forest, which is home to 43 threatened or endangered animals including the timber rattlesnake and pine snake, as well as Batsto Village, a preserved bog iron and glassmaking industrial hub that dates to 1766.
The forest — and the million-acre Pinelands region it’s in — have long been dogged by debate over vehicle use.
Hunters, fishermen, boaters, hikers, and other recreational users now can legally drive on countless unpaved roads that crisscross the wooded region, as long as their vehicles are street legal, registered, plated, insured, and operated by a licensed driver.
But some visitors have subjected Pine Barrens roads to “terrible, terrible abuse,” said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. That includes people who drive ATVs and dirt bikes illegally, as well as those in pickup trucks, SUVs, and other legal vehicles who stray off roads or drive erratically on established roads.
“The state forests, especially in the Pinelands, have not been valued by people,” Montgomery said. “They do not think of them like they do Yellowstone National Park — and they should, because they’re just as wonderful. Requiring people to pay to drive in Wharton State Forest makes it clear that there is a cost to maintaining these places and making them safe for visitors.”
The alliance supports the state’s permit plan, with a few caveats, Montgomery said.
“The charge can’t be very high. It has to be enforced, obviously, if it’s going to be done,” he said. “And it’s really important that people understand it’s not a license to misbehave, just because you’ve got that sticker on your vehicle. It’s a sign that you have gone through a process to help ensure you will behave right.”
The first thing the state should do, though, is dispel confusion over the location of state forests’ legal roads.
“There are no maps for any of the state forests in the Pinelands that tell you: ‘This is a road and that’s where you’re allowed to drive, and anything else — even if it looks like a road because someone created it, you cannot drive a vehicle there, because that’s a path for walking or for horseback riding,’” Montgomery said. “They haven’t done that, and I think that’s shocking.”
State officials held the first of several planned public meetings on the permit plan last month. Then, John Cecil, assistant commissioner of state parks, forests and historic sites, agreed off-roading vehicles in Wharton State Forest is “a challenge.”
To fight the problem, the Department of Environmental Resources, working with the state Attorney General’s Office, hiked fines last year for illegal off-roading, Cecil said.
Instituting a vehicle permit system in the forest should also help, he added.
The department plans to hold two more public meetings in early 2023 and in the spring. In the meantime, officials are asking the public to participate in an online survey through Oct. 28.
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