🌲 DEP says permits could help to reduce damage/danger caused by off-roaders

🌲 There would be a nominal fee attached to a permit

🌲 Opponents say permits are punishing law-abiding forest visitors

As the state gets to work on better defining access and restrictions related to New Jersey's largest state forest, residents are voicing their opposition to more extreme measures such as the permitting or closure of certain routes.

During its most recent virtual public meeting on visitor and vehicle use at Wharton State Forest, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection heard from a number of New Jersey residents and visitors who are against the idea of permits — even at a nominal fee — for certain areas of the woods.

The idea has been tossed around by DEP staff for a while now, as a potential way to curb unsafe — and sometimes unlawful — usage of the state forest. Activities such as off-roading are damaging sensitive ecological resources, and at times require police or medical response when people get lost or can't get their vehicle unstuck.

Map detail of Wharton State Forest (Wikimedia)
Map detail of Wharton State Forest (Wikimedia)

"Obviously we have challenges with what I'd like to believe is a small percentage of people who are coming into the forests and really abusing the space," said John Cecil, assistant DEP commissioner.

Cecil said a permit could be one move in a series of steps to increase enforcement in Wharton, a portion of the Pinelands that gets more than 800,000 visitors annually. Cecil said a permit would not be instituted as a "revenue generator," and that it's possible that any fee could be waived for certain categories of visitors, such as those with a hunting license.

Forest Vehicle Fight
FILE - This Oct. 13, 2021, photo shows tire tracks cut into an area near a river in Wharton State Forest in Shamong, N.J. New Jersey is considering whether to institute a permit system for access to certain parts of Wharton State Forest, in part to address illegal vehicle usage in the woods. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry, File)

Opposition to permits at Wharton

In a DEP survey that received more than 1,600 responses during the fall of 2022, hundreds of respondents called for more enforcement in Wharton. Out of 1,508 written responses in the survey, 199 noted opposition to a permit system. Fifty-four said they are in favor of a permit system.

An online hearing on Feb. 8 attracted comments mostly from those who are against the permit proposal.

"It looks like we're going to punish the people that law abide down there," Bill Hamlin told DEP during the hearing. "Bigger signs would be a help, I think — telling these people that they're not allowed there."

Off-road vehicle use is prohibited in the Pinelands. The state already issues mobile sport vehicle permits for Island Beach State Park.

'It looks like we're going to punish the people that law abide down there.'

"A permit is no more than a restriction," said David Demsey, a lifelong resident of the area.

"I am totally against any permit system," added Ken Pannone. "It's not going to solve the problem. The key is education."

Pannone said he's also against any road closures. Cecil noted that there are certain parts of Wharton that are "completely unsuitable" for vehicles and "effectively impassable."

"We think that those should just be closed and no one should be going down there," Cecil said.

Cecil said that following the Feb. 8 hearing, which was the second public meeting on the topic, the state would begin to work on signage, brochures, and maps that aim to clarify access to and through the woods.

DEP plans to come back late this summer or in the fall with what will be newly developed informational materials, to have another conversation on the subject. If DEP plans to move forward with permitting for Wharton State Forest, the rule-making process may begin in the fall, Cecil said.

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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