The Pinelands Commission voted in favor of a map that designates certain Wharton State Forest roads for motor vehicles and on a proposed New Jersey Natural Gas Co. pipeline that would cut across the northern part of the reserve.
The final vote was 8-4 with one abstention.
— Michelle B. Post (@MichelleBPost) September 14, 2017
The Pinelands Commission is expected to vote Thursday on a map that would designate certain Wharton State Forest roads for motor vehicles and on a proposed New Jersey Natural Gas Co. pipeline that would cut across the northern part of the reserve.
The 9:30 a.m. meeting has been moved to its meeting to the War Memorial in Trenton.
Environmentalists want the map of appropriate roads to stop people from driving trucks, cars and motorcycles into the forest and wetlands, where they damage soil and plants and endanger animal and plant species.
In October, the commission released a report showing almost 300 areas of vehicle damage in Wharton.
Commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg has said the commission’s action will not close any roads or trails that have historically been used as roads but will give the state Department of Environmental Protection a basis for making future decisions about Wharton.
People who drive in the state forest say the wording in the resolution creating the map worries them. They say cooperation among the DEP, environmentalists and motoring enthusiasts already have cut down on damage in Wharton.
“Some of the wording within the resolution leaves something to be desired as far as future closings,” said Dave Demsey, founder of OpenTrailsNJ, a group organized to fight a 2015 DEP plan to close about half of Wharton’s 500 miles of road.
The DEP dropped that plan and instead ramped up enforcement, road maintenance and education efforts.
The resolution states the Pinelands Commission “has identified the roads on the assembled federally prepared USGS Topographical maps … as the baseline of existing roads in Wharton State Forest; and … finds that recreational use of motor vehicles in Wharton State Forest should be limited to the roads marked on the attached USGS Topographical maps.”
It also states the commission may decide later that some roads have become unsuitable for motor vehicles, and “future changes shall be the subject of consultation between the Pinelands Commission and the NJDEP.”
“I’m curious about the scientific reasoning behind it. Who will determine which ones close?” Demsey asked.
But Demsey agreed the commission won’t be unilaterally closing roads.
“The DEP would have to sign off on it, and I don’t think it will,” Demsey said.
The 115,000-acre forest covers parts of Atlantic, Camden and Burlington counties. The commission’s Wharton plan combines sections of maps created from 1979 to 1994 by the U.S. Geological Survey, Wittenberg said.
Wittenberg said the commission has worked closely with DEP and other groups to identify areas most in need of protection, especially wetlands.
After the damage points were identified in Wharton, she said, commission staff worked with DEP and other groups to put up signs and barriers to protect sensitive areas.
Staff are working with other agencies and groups to inventory all the ponds in state forests and wildlife management areas, she said. That is about 1,800 ponds statewide, 452 of which are in Wharton.
Only street-legal vehicles, such as trucks, cars and motorcycles, are allowed in Wharton. Off-road vehicles, such as all-terrain vehicles, and nonstreet legal dirt bikes are prohibited, but that rule is often ignored.
New Jersey Natural Gas Co.’s proposed pipeline would travel 30 miles through Monmouth, Ocean and Burlington counties, mostly under existing roads but passing through some protected Pinelands areas.