HAMMONTON — The state Department of Environmental Protection held out an olive branch to the off-road vehicle community at a meeting attended by about 400 people Thursday night at Hammonton High School.

The DEP has indefinitely suspended its Wharton State Forest Motorized Access Plan, which would have closed more than half of the routes historically used by motor vehicles in the forest, representatives told the crowd. The statement was met with loud, long applause.

The DEP will step up enforcement of existing laws and will work with the off-road community to develop ways of minimizing damage in the forest, they said.

“We want to apologize for the way the plan was rolled out and developed,” said DEP Manager of Constitutent Services Kerry Kirkpflugh. “We are starting from scratch working with stakeholders and all of you to develop a map.”

Most in attendance opposed the proposed plan, based on the applause given those who spoke in favor of greater accessibility for motor vehicles in the forest.

It would have restricted motor vehicles to about 225 miles of mostly dirt roads in the forest, and marked about another 275 miles of smaller routes as off-limits to motor vehicles. It was designed to protect public safety and conserve fragile or sensitive parts of the forest, state officials have said.

Some off-road vehicle drivers have damaged wetlands, forest and areas of historic and geologic value by illegally driving off established routes. Others have gotten stuck or lost and needed help getting back to established roads, and vehicles have started fires by overheating in areas of heavy brush.

“I was in the forest today and I was encouraged,” said Joe Springer, of the East Coast Enduro Association, a group of off-road motorcyclists. “The signs (closing some roads) are down.” He thanked the DEP and its commissioner Robert Martin for suspending the plan.

But some off-roaders remained angry. Lindsay Pirie, of Port Republic, said the plan was an example of government creating a problem and then telling people how to solve it.

“There are no problems out there,” he said, adding he would like to see an investigation of the attempt to close the roads, with someone losing their job or going to jail.

Several environmentalists spoke in favor of the proposed plan, and encouraged the DEP to adopt a MAP in the new year.

“Given the magnitude of the problem, the MAP was a tremendous step in the right direction,” said Chris Jage, of Hammonton. He is assistant director for South Jersey of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

He said motor vehicle use is the only activity not regulated in the forest. State, federal and Pinelands Commission rules and laws are being ignored, he said.

“The slate is not blank. It is deeply etched with environmental regulations,” Jage said.

Dozens of people were waiting in line to speak at press time.

The off-road community began organizing to oppose the proposed MAP since first hearing about it at municipal meetings this summer, and nine communities in Burlington County have passed resolutions opposing the plan.

Off-roaders say the plan unnecessarily cuts off their access to smaller routes, and stressed the need for State Park Police to do more enforcement of existing laws and fine lawbreakers who drive off established trails, use illegally large tires or damage the forest.

Wharton encompasses 122,800 acres in Atlantic, Camden and Burlington counties. It is the largest single tract of land within the New Jersey State Park System.

ORVs are street legal four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles and dirtbike motorcycles. They are driven off road for fun, and many are modified with huge tires to go through water and mud.

Only street-legal vehicles are allowed on Wharton’s roads. All-terrain vehicles remain illegal there.

Thursday evening’s meeting was the first of several meetings in the past month that was open to the general public, said Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Bob Considine.

Six stakeholder meetings with representatives of about 90 invited groups were held in October, Considine said. The groups represented motorized and non-motorized recreation, outdoors groups, environmentalists and non-profits, academia and local government.

The DEP signaled in September that it was taking a step back from its proposed MAP for Wharton, after getting a lot of strong opposition to it from the hunting and ORV communities.

Texel said then the DEP’s goal was to have a series of meetings with interested parties and develop a new draft plan by December.

But Considine said further reflection convinced officials to change their minds on a deadline.

“As we were going through the process, we decided we don’t want to put a time frame on it,” Considine said. “From our standpoint we need to take the right amount of time to make the right decisions.”

Wharton received a $600,000 federal grant this year to improve motor vehicle roads in the forest, and has spent about half of it on about 10 miles of road repair, purchase of a dump truck, and grading and trimming tree limbs on another 90 miles of roadways, said Wharton Superintendent Rob Auermuller, of Little Egg Harbor Township.

As part of the grant, Wharton had to print a map of official roads, he said.

Contact: 609-272-7219

Twitter @MichelleBPost

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