Building upon its commitment to robust public engagement, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is now accepting online comments from the public for the proposed Wharton State Forest Visiting Vehicle Use Map. The proposed map, released today, designates legal driving routes within New Jersey’s largest state forest.
In addition, an in-person open house is taking place today at the Batsto Visitor Center in Wharton State Forest until 7 p.m. where the public may leave written comments. Those unable to attend in person can view the same materials, along with an introductory video from Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette at njparksandforests.org/wharton. The materials will be available online for review and comment for a period of 45 days from Jan. 24 until Saturday, March 9. Feedback will be used to finalize the Wharton State Forest Visiting Vehicle Use Map for release later this year.
“People visit Wharton for many different reasons, among them hiking, canoeing, camping, enjoying nature, fishing, hunting, horseback riding and driving along the forest’s many miles of sand routes,” said Commissioner LaTourette. “A Visiting Vehicle Use Map with clearly defined driving routes and recreational access opportunities is long overdue. This map will become an important tool in ensuring responsible enjoyment of this natural and recreational treasure as well as a valuable resource guide to the many recreational opportunities Wharton offers.”
“The largest tract of protected land in New Jersey, Wharton State Forest is a true wonder with its incredible forest and wetland resources, diversity of plants and animals, and rich history,” said John Cecil, Assistant Commissioner for State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites. “We remain committed to working collaboratively with local governments, stakeholders and the public to finalize a Visiting Vehicle Use Map that provides ample access opportunities for all users while protecting the exceptional natural resources that make Wharton special.”
Development of the proposed Visiting Vehicle Use Map was guided by input provided by stakeholders in 1,610 surveys submitted online, by email, and through traditional mail between Sept. 28 and Nov. 11, 2022. Respondents provided information about the activities they enjoy as well as how frequently they enjoy them. Information provided through the surveys was first presented at a virtual public meeting on Feb. 8, 2023 that was followed by a public comment period.
Additionally, DEP data on endangered and nongame species, wetlands, historic resources, rare plants and ecological habitats were taken into consideration in developing the proposed Visiting Vehicle Use Map.
Purpose of the Visiting Vehicle Use Map
The Wharton State Forest Visiting Vehicle Use Map will define designated legal routes for street-legal vehicle usage, while protecting culturally and ecologically sensitive areas. Routes included on the map will allow for focused routine maintenance by the State Park Service, enhancing the visitor experience and access for emergency response personnel.
The final Wharton Visiting Vehicle Use Map will be made available for download as a georeferenced PDF. Visitors driving through the state forest will be able to determine their location on the Visiting Vehicle Use Map in real time on their mobile device, even in areas with limited or no cellular service.
State Park Police will be able to better patrol the forest for illegal off-road vehicle use throughout the forest and issue citations where appropriate. In 2021, the State Attorney General’s Office was successful in securing an increase in fines for illegal off-road vehicle use and damages.
Fines now start at $250 to $500 for a first offense, $500 to $1,000 for a second offense, and a minimum of $1,000 for a third or subsequent offense. If a violation results in damage to or destruction of natural resources, an additional fine of five times the cost of the damage may be assessed.
Visitors are reminded that off-road vehicle use of any kind (for example, ATVs, side-by-sides, and other non-street-legal motorized vehicles) is illegal on state-owned lands. Vehicles operating in a state park, forest or wildlife management area must be street legal, registered, plated, insured, and operated by a licensed driver on an established road.
Park visitors who encounter ATVs on or off established park roads or see suspicious or illegal activities on the DEP-managed public lands may call 1-877-WARNDEP (1-877-927-6337). Additionally, the Warn DEP iPhone and Android application allows visitors to report environmental abuses, including illegal off-road use, from their smartphone. For information on how to download the app, visit: nj.gov/dep/warndep.htm
About Wharton State Forest
At 124,350 acres, Wharton State Forest sprawls across parts of Atlantic, Burlington and Camden counties and is one of the most popular destinations in the State Park System. It is situated in the heart of the million-acre Pinelands National Reserve, which is recognized for its unique natural resources and is designated as a U.S. Biosphere Reserve of national and international significance.
The DEP lists 43 animals found in the state forest as threatened or endangered, including the Pine Barrens tree frog, timber rattlesnake and pine snake. The state forest also boasts some 750 species of plants, including wild orchids, sedges, grasses, and insect-eating plants. Rare plants include the bog asphodel, swamp pink and Pine Barrens gentian. The predominant trees are the pitch pine, various oak species, and Atlantic white cedar.
To learn more about New Jersey’s State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites, visit www.njparksandforests.org/
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