Pinelands Commission puts brakes on off-roading plan for now

 This Jan. 6, 2014 photo shows a section of the Pinelands region in Lakehurst N.J. (Wayne Parry/AP Photo)

This Jan. 6, 2014 photo shows a section of the Pinelands region in Lakehurst N.J. (Wayne Parry/AP Photo)

The Pinelands Commission delayed a vote Friday to formalize which paths through Wharton State Forest are actually roads, an attempt to cut down on illegal off-roading that some say have damaged sensitive ecological areas.

Commissioners tabled the vote so they could consult with staff at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. DEP oversees the state park police, which patrols Wharton.

Illegal off-roading in Wharton has been an issue for years. Drivers with lifted trucks or SUVs veer off main through ways and foray into protected ponds, bogs, hills, and other potentially sensitive sites, endangering unique animals and plantlife, environmental advocates say.

A previous plan to severely limit driving through Wharton, although lauded by environmentalists, was overwhelmingly opposed by hikers, hunters, off-roaders and others and was eventually abandoned.

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In March, the DEP announced a plan to step up enforcement of illegal off-roading in Wharton and post signs to more clearly delineate where driving is permitted.

But the Pinelands Commission wanted to define which roads were truly roads, so that state park police knew whether drivers were breaking the law.

The resolution briefly considered Friday would have limited driving inside Wharton to roads marked on four previous topographical maps created by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Some commissioners, however, thought it best to speak with DEP before voting on the resolution. Pinelands Commission executive director Nancy Wittenberg said she had been unable to schedule a meeting with the department because of the state government shutdown and because DEP Commissioner Bob Martin had been on vacation.

The map is now set for a vote at the commission’s next meeting on Aug. 11.

The resolution would also have allowed the commission and DEP to close roads from time to time, which worried hunter Francis Walder. “A friend of mine, he’s 87 years old. We can’t walk a mile, two miles, to get to our hunting stand,” he said. “All we do is drive our truck in. We don’t go through any puddles. We don’t destroy any land.”

But some members of the public who spoke at Friday’s meeting criticized the commission for not acting with more urgency on an issue they said continues to plague the forest. “This map is such a no-duh issue,” said Georgina Shanley of Ocean City. “I’ve seen many things that were far less obvious being fast-tracked through the Pinelands Commission in the past.”

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