The New Jersey Pinelands are on the fringes of the heavily populated Northeast Corridor. While this area is remote, it is within a short drive for millions of people. Within the heart of the Pinelands is the Wharton State Forest, a true ecological treasure and home to many threatened or endangered plant and animal species. It is also a recreational resource for many.
The proximity to large populations of people combined with the allure of the beauty and remoteness of this area has resulted in pressure for recreational use as well as sustained efforts to preserve and protect the unique natural ecosystem. Striking a balance between recreational use and ecological preservation has been an ongoing challenge that can be described as a polarity between those desiring preservation of the forest and those desiring access to the forest.
John McPhee’s 1968 book “The Pine Barrens” was a popular work that increased public awareness of the rich environment of the Pinelands and its rich historical and cultural heritage. The state and federal governments had the foresight to recognize this in 1978, when it was designated the Pinelands National Reserve. The state enacted the Comprehensive Management Plan in 1980 in an attempt to preserve this area while recognizing that there are scenic, aesthetic, cultural, open-space and recreational-resource considerations; it specifically requires public participation in the planning process to be an integral part of the management approach. This public participation is the result of the New Jersey statute that requires the plan to include “A program to provide for the maximum feasible local government and public participation in the management of the pinelands area.”
The popularization of motorized off-highway vehicles (OHVs) has expanded opportunities to freely explore the forest while also causing detrimental effects to the ecosystem. Unfortunately, the popularity of these vehicles is contributing to the need for regulation.
Expectations for free OHV access to the Wharton State Forest began long ago when recreational pressures on the forest were much less than they are today. A study found that on federal lands, allowance of recreational use of OHVs was a not a result of planned policy, but evolutionary, the default being ubiquitous and uncontrolled use of OHVs. The result was that the vehicles were being operated in environmentally sensitive areas, resulting in ecological damage.
Another study found that the initial reaction by authorities is generally to limit OHV access, resulting in closure of access in sensitive areas. The evolution of the OHV situation in Wharton State Forest is comparable in that the initial approach by forest managers was to prohibit access.
For example, the Wharton State Forest approach in 2015 was to implement a Motorized Access Plan (MAP) with a map that identified the 225 miles of roads open to legally licensed OHVs. It was also accompanied by an informational brochure to highlight the forest ecology and to warn of improper use of OHVs. The net effect was to prohibit access to many miles of existing sand roads.
The Motorized Access Plan was enacted by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection without public input. This caused an outcry by recreational users that resulted in the DEP rescinding the plan. While prohibiting access can seemingly solve the immediate problem of protecting sensitive areas, the process for the implementation of that approach was flawed.
As recently as 2017, Wharton State Forest managers began to consider a portfolio of indirect actions, direct actions and bridge-building to address OHV access and protection of the forest. Public meetings were held with representatives of stakeholder groups and they discussed signage, outreach, education and enforcement. As a follow-up, user groups were engaged to volunteer to install signs advising people that the area was patrolled and identifying where certain roads were not accessible. While the engagement of user groups was an evolutionary step and the community began to engage, there is significant opportunity for improvement to move beyond engagement.
The current situation within the Wharton State Forest has devolved into two polarities: those advocating for recreational access and those advocating for conservation. However, I believe there are many shared values between the two opposed groups and a significant number of people without a voice who share a balanced view. If we took the time to gain a deeper understanding of the shared values of those advocating for recreational access and those advocating for conservation and explore integrative approaches, we can achieve equilibrium between the two polarities. This would benefit everyone, especially the forest and lead to a lasting solution that balances protection and use of the natural resource that we all know and love.