By Michele Byers
At 125,000 acres, Wharton State Forest in the Pine Barrens is by far the largest state-owned forest in New Jersey.
In fact, it’s bigger than the land area of Essex and Hudson counties combined!
This sprawling forest in the heart of the Pine Barrens is notable for its diversity of wildlife, including rare plants and threatened and endangered animals like Pine Barrens tree frogs. Since Wharton was purchased in the mid-1950s, motorized vehicles have been allowed to travel its network of sandy roads to tour the quiet of the forest’s interior, visit historic ghost towns and find places to put in a canoe.
But in recent years, motor vehicle use in Wharton has veered out of control. Powerful four-wheel drive vehicles have destroyed the old roads and blazed new ones through woods and streambeds to create places for off-roading and “mudding.” Old trails and firelines never intended for motorized vehicles have been widened to access some of the forest’s most pristine areas.
The result is widespread damage to the area’s land and waterways, severely eroded stream banks, acres of denuded landscapes and cavernous mud pits that were once iconic Pine Barrens wetlands. In addition to harming wildlife and degrading pristine streams, this damage has made some roads so impassable that even robust Forest Fire Service vehicles have been left stranded during recent forest fires.
A new plan will help rectify these problems.
To protect the forest, improve safety and make public access easier, the state Department of Environmental Protection is launching a Motorized Access Plan to encourage and enforce responsible use of motor vehicles.
For the first time, the state is clarifying which roads within Wharton are designated for motorized access and distinguishing them from the trails that are set aside for visitors on foot, bicycles and horses. The plan designates nearly 225 miles of sand and other unimproved roads — almost double the length of the New Jersey Turnpike — for street-legal motor vehicles.
“Wharton State Forest is unique in that it provides an extensive network of sand and gravel roads, remnants of the area’s rich history, that provide up-close access to secluded rivers, quiet forests, beautiful wetlands and sites of former villages and towns,” said Richard Boornazian, the Department of Environmental Protection’s assistant commissioner for natural and historic resources. “The MAP program will ensure continued access to these features while educating the public and making sure the region’s sensitive ecology is protected.”
There’s plenty that needs protecting! Wharton State Forest is home to some 300 bird species, nearly 60 reptile and amphibian species and more than 90 fish species. Forty-three of those animals are listed by the state as threatened or endangered, including bobcats, timber rattlesnakes and red-headed woodpeckers.
Wharton also has some 850 plant species, including wild orchids, sedges, grasses and insect-eating plants. Rarest among them include bog asphodels, curly-grass ferns and Pine-Barrens gentians.
The State Park Service will begin implementing the MAP by late summer. Brochures and maps will be available at the Batsto Village Visitor Center, off Burlington County Route 542, east of Hammonton, and at the Atsion Recreation Area, off Route 206 in Shamong.
This is a terrific way to balance motorized vehicle use with protecting sensitive areas! Thank you to the Department of Environmental Protection for addressing this critical off-road vehicle problem at Wharton in a thoughtful, responsible way.
Hopefully, the Wharton State Forest MAP will become a model for the management of our other state-owned lands.
Show your support for the Motorized Access Plan by contacting the Department of Environmental Protection commissioner and your legislators at www.saveh2onj.org.
Michele Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. For more information, contact her at email@example.com or visit www.njconservation.org
By Michele Byers