It’s a significant problem that continues to get worse all over New Jersey.

An increasing number of all-terrain vehicles, ATVs, continue to illegally roar through forests, wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas, doing all sorts of serious damage and disturbing the peace.

Emile DeVito, the manager of science and stewardship at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said ATVs are ripping up turf and causing significant destruction “on state lands, on county lands, on municipal parks, non-profit groups have very large preserves and it’s just an epidemic.”

He said when ATVs go through these areas the result is “magnificent habitats that are supposed to be natural areas just being churned up into mud, we have historic sites that are being destroyed, wetlands that are being destroyed, archaeological sites that are being destroyed.”

He said bird watchers, hikers and others seeking to enjoy the beauty of nature have become increasingly frustrated by people of all ages, including young kids, illegally driving a variety of off-road vehicles through the forest.

“They do tremendous damage to natural resources and not only that, they often get hurt in remote areas where there’s almost no way to get emergency services.”

DeVito said at certain times of the year “you could go to someplace in the Pine Barrens and there could literally be hundreds of people just tearing apart a particular area and some of the places have been utterly destroyed.”

Who are these people?

He said off-road enthusiasts are using many forest areas as an anything-goes, no rules kind of motorized playground.

“They come from the local towns, they come from New York from Philadelphia, from all over the state of New Jersey, from all over the northeast, you can go on websites and see that everyone is encouraged to come and destroy the New Jersey Pine Barrens,” he said.

He said when ATVs repeatedly go through pristine wetlands or marshy areas, the vegetation gets trampled and it becomes a muddy road.

Photo by Justin Louis
Photo by Justin Louis
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Why isn’t this stopped?

DeVito said law enforcement in parks "have dwindled dramatically in recent years and we’ve been acquiring more parkland.”

He said in the rare instance when someone is actually caught illegally driving an ATV in a protected area, "almost nobody ever gets a ticket.”

He said the entire system that’s in place right now is too lenient.

“There have been some regulations passed in recent years that have increased the amount of fines that can be charged, that vehicles can be impounded [but] they’re almost never enforced.”

 

A spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said the DEP “continues working on its plans for appropriate vehicle access in Wharton State Forest, building on the common ground shared by the varied user groups who want to see forest resources protected. Upon completion, these efforts to define vehicle access will serve as the model for other protection of state-managed lands throughout the Pinelands.”

“It is critical that the state develop a plan to address vehicle access and ensure the protection of sensitive ecosystems, while also holding accountable those responsible for damaging these resources," the spokesman added. "At the same time, Commissioner LaTourette recognizes that vehicle access to public lands is one of many pursuits people enjoy in the Pinelands and can be done responsibly.”

The DEP this year plans to release a public access survey to find out how people like to use Wharton. The DEP will also take input from the Pinelands Commission and other groups, including from public stakeholder sessions starting in September.

"The DEP is discussing the development of a permit system for use of unimproved roads in Wharton State Forest, modeled off the department’s experience implementing the Mobile Sport Fishing Vehicle Permit system at Island Beach State Park," the DEP spokesman said. "The specifics of the permit process are in development, but in general, permits would be issued for vehicle use of specified routes developed through input received via the access survey and stakeholder meetings. The permit system would enhance monitoring of vehicle use and protection of sensitive resources.”

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at david.matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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