SHAMONG, N.J. (AP) — Sprawling across 1.1 million acres of pine trees, sandy soil, remote wetlands and home to rare plants and animals, the New Jersey Pinelands is the personification of the free-as-a-bird Great Outdoors.
Locals speak passionately of walking or riding through the woods that their parents or grandparents introduced them to, hiking, fishing, hunting or driving motorcycles or 4-wheel-drive vehicles along the unpaved sand and gravel roads.
But the Pinelands is being loved to death in many places.
The illegal use of off-road vehicles has cut wide swaths of damage into the ecologically sensitive region. Some riders veer off approved trails into sensitive areas, marring them with tire tracts and litter.
New Jersey officials have been struggling with this situation for decades, particularly in Wharton State Forest, a 124,350-acre track of woods and wetlands in the southern part of the state where tensions between vehicle lovers and opponents have been rising.
And what appears to be the state’s preferred solution — instituting a permit system to use parts of the forest — is pleasing few people.
At an online public hearing Wednesday night on the issue, the age-old freedom-versus-the-common-good debate dominated the discussion.
Virtually no one supported permits, even at a nominal cost.
Most locals viewed it as government overreach by charging them to use land they already own as members of the public. Many riders said they meticulously follow the rules, and they don’t want to be punished for the actions of what John Cecil, assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection described as “a small percentage of people abusing the space.”
On the other side are those who argue the state has an obligation to crack down on illegal behavior to protect the Pinelands for future generations. Yet many of them doubt that the need for a permit will stop irresponsible riders from continuing to damage the woods.
The Department of Environmental Protection, which has not yet decided whether to require permits or how much they might cost, says the system would check incoming vehicles to ensure they are safe for the woods and comply with requirements on the type of vehicles that are allowed. Dirt bikes, motorcycles, pickup trucks and 4-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed as long as they are street-legal, licensed and insured. Vehicles designed for off-road terrain, which are not allowed on city streets, are also banned from the Pinelands.
“When someone from the government says you should give up some freedom in the name of safety, that should be a red flag,” said Jason Stetser, who swims, camps and canoes in Wharton State Forest.
He said state-imposed restrictions on where vehicles can go have already placed a favorite hunting spot off limits to him because it is three miles from the nearest road.
But Deb Smith, who loves living in the Pinelands, said things are getting dangerous.
“I have been physically and verbally attacked in the forest, so I’m leery now,” she said. “People say, ‘This is our land, no one should tell us how to use it.’ That’s a bad attitude.”
Created by an act of Congress in 1978, the Pinelands district is overseen by a joint federal and state commission. It occupies 22% of New Jersey’s land area, and it is the largest body of open space on the mid-Atlantic seaboard between Richmond, Virginia, and Boston. It also includes an aquifer that is the source of 17 trillion gallons of drinking water.
It contains many rare plant and animal species, some existing nowhere else on Earth, and it has been designated by the United Nations as an internationally significant site worthy of special protection.
Wharton State Forest draws 800,000 visitors a year. As part of the ongoing debate over its future use, New Jersey officials sought input from people who live in or near the forest, or who travel to visit it.
From the 1,610 surveys received, several themes emerged: Most oppose the imposition of permits to use parts of the forest; many want more enforcement of existing rules and regulations regarding its use; but many also want to keep things as they are, or to have no restrictions at all.
“It seems to me the DEP came up with this permit system instead of doing its job,” said Paula Yudkowitz, who said she has constantly reported illegal activity in Wharton State Forest, to no avail. “The destruction is incredible because the DEP is afraid to do its job. You’re afraid of the off-road people.”
Department of Enironmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said state Park Police issued 12 summonses for illegal off-road vehicle use in Wharton State Forest last year.
“Keep in mind that Wharton is the largest of New Jersey’s state parks and forests … with areas that are difficult to access and consistently monitor,” he said. “In addition, Park Police must exercise discretion when conducting enforcement so as not to pose a safety risk to the public or to themselves. (All-terrain vehicles) are highly maneuverable, very difficult for police to follow within rural forested settings, and they are often not registered or visibly marked in a way that allows for enforcement actions to be taken.”
He said there are 82 Park Police statewide. But he would not say how many are assigned to Wharton State Forest.
Kenny Taylor was born and raised in the Pinelands, part of a family whose roots in the area date to the 1700s; he said his ancestors helped cut sand roads through the forest with the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.
“These are our woods,” he said. “Will a permit system convince people who are doing illegal things to stop? I don’t think so.”
Follow Wayne Parry on Twitter at www.twiter.com/WayneParryAC