TRENTON — The Pinelands Commission unanimously approved a resolution Thursday designating which roads in Wharton State Forest are “appropriate for recreational use by motor vehicles.”
The commission has been working for about two years to develop the map as a way of preventing further damage to soil, plants and animals caused by drivers leaving roads and driving through fire breaks, trails and wetlands, Commissioner Ed Lloyd said.
Members of the public who spoke were all in favor of the resolution and map.
“We see so much destruction out there, it breaks my heart,” said Rosemarie Mason, of Port Republic, a member of the Outdoor Club of New Jersey who heads the maintenance crew for the 57-mile Batona Trail.
The hiking trail often has deep ruts and mud areas caused by dirt bike or motorcycle riders, who also regularly take down signs posted by the club, she said.
“We see tire tracks through little ponds and bogs,” Mason said.
Only street-legal, registered cars, trucks and motorcycles are allowed in Wharton, but that rule is often broken, with all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes being driven there regularly, according to environmentalists.
Rosemarie’s sister Diane Mason, of Absecon, is also a club member and said she hopes the map becomes a tool for law enforcement and a way to discourage people from visiting who would abuse the state forest.
“Keep out the guys who come from out of state in mass numbers,” she said. “They have no love of the pines. They just want to go out and tear things up.”
The commission created a map of good roads for visitors to drive on using U. S. Geological Survey topographical maps from the 1970s to the 1990s.
It is available to view on the commission’s website as part of its Sept. 14 meeting packet, but no printed edition yet exists.
The data and resolution will be forwarded to the Department of Environmental Protection, the resolution states. It will be up to the DEP to use it in its stepped-up enforcement efforts at Wharton, commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg has said.
The DEP issued a statement Thursday that fell short of enthusiasm for the map.
“DEP does not object to the Pinelands Commission’s map because it does not affect our cooperative relationship with the Commission or the various stakeholders we’ve been working with” to protect Wharton, including the commission, other stakeholders and user groups, the statement read.
The DEP called the map “useful as a guide,” but said, “it is based on maps that are many years, even decades, old and should not be relied upon as a definitive map of all the roads and trails within the state forest.”
The commission added language to the resolution requested by the Enduro community, which runs annual motorcycle races through the Pinelands, using smaller trails on a special-use basis. The resolution says the commission does not intend the map be used by DEP as part of its review of Special Use permits.
About two dozen people spoke in favor of the map, and about 200 people attended the meeting, which also saw the commission vote to approve an application by New Jersey Natural Gas Co. to build a 30-mile pipeline, about 12 miles of which would pass through the northern part of the Pinelands Reserve.
While environmentalists cheered the vote on the Wharton map, they were disappointed with the pipeline vote.
“It’s a good plan overall, but there are some environmentally sensitive areas that we would like to be taken out (of the areas where people can drive),” said Jeff Tittle, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
He called it a good beginning but was suspicious of why the Wharton vote happened on the same day as the NJ Natural Gas Co. pipeline vote.
“They put it up today for ‘green cover’ over the pipeline,” Tittle said.
“it was very difficult to watch (you) split the baby in half,” said Doug O’Malley, executive director of Environment New Jersey, in speaking to the commission after the vote. “You acted today to protect Wharton and to sacrifice parts of the Pines to pipelines.”