N.J. keeps Wharton Forest access open, steps up enforcement of off-roading ban

Jemima Mount in Wharton State Forest

Jemima Mount in Wharton State Forest

A plan to close roads in New Jersey’s largest state forest in a bid to reduce damage by illegal off-roading has officially been scrapped.

The state Department of Environmental Protection announced Wednesday that it would instead focus on cracking down on illegal off-roaders and posting signs that more clearly state where visitors can and cannot drive in Wharton State Forest.

The news comes about nine months after the DEP began closing roads in Wharton, leading to a strident public backlash that caused the department to walk back its original plan.

“It’s a forest that has people who love it for different reasons and for different activities, so we think we’re striking the right balance,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna. “It’s been a tough task.”

Illegal off-roading in Wharton occurs when people drive modified Jeeps, SUVs, and trucks off common roads and into rugged, often environmentally sensitive, terrain.

The DEP will create a stand-alone unit of state park police and conservation officers focused specifically on patrolling Wharton. Fines for illegal off-roading will start at $250 and can reach $900 if a driver’s vehicle is impounded.

The department, with the help of volunteers, will also post dozens of signs at the entrances to Wharton and near environmentally and culturally sensitive areas stating the rules for driving inside the forest.

“I don’t think there’s any reasonable party out there that can look at this and not say ‘there’s something for everybody here,'” said kayaker Bill Caruso, a member of Open Trails NJ, which opposed widespread road closures.

“It represents a compromise,” he said of the plan.

But without a map clearly defining which sand and dirt roads are open or closed, enforcement will be difficult, according to Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

“So many paths have been cleared illegally or by the forest fire service for a particular need and never restored that there’s going to be a lot of controversy, a lot of argument over what is really a road anymore,” he said.

Montgomery also underscored the need for similar management plans in other forests and wildlife areas across the Garden State.

“There really isn’t time to just sit back and test it [in Wharton],” said Montgomery. “These things need to be tested everywhere or we’re going to be losing resources that we may not be able to recover in our lifetimes.”

The DEP will also step up efforts to repair and improve roads that have been “rutted” and otherwise damaged by illegal off-road vehicle use.

The department’s plan is already being rolled out.

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