(22/P036) TRENTON –The Department of Environmental Protection will host the first in a series of virtual public stakeholder meetings at 6 pm Tuesday, Sept. 27, launching a Visitor and Vehicle Use Survey to develop an access and use plan for Wharton State Forest, Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette announced today.
At 124,350 acres, Wharton State Forest is the largest tract of land within the New Jersey State Park system, receiving more than 800,000 visitors annually. The new survey seeks input on what types of recreation the public enjoys at the forest, what areas of the forest are most important to users, and the routes they use to access those activities.
“The Murphy Administration recognizes the immense importance of Wharton State Forest to the thousands of people who visit it for everything from birding and quiet walks to scenic drives and motorized recreation,” said Commissioner LaTourette. “For this reason, public engagement is critical to our mission to ensure the forest is a place for everyone to enjoy. We, therefore, encourage the public and stakeholders to participate in our virtual sessions and complete the survey to ensure a diversity of viewpoints and that there is an opportunity to address any community concerns.”
The Sept. 27 meeting will demonstrate for participants a new web-based survey and mapping tool where park users will answer questions about their favorite recreational activities in Wharton State Forest, such as fishing, hiking, boating and scenic driving, among others. The survey will allow participants to mark areas of importance on an interactive mapping tool which may be of personal significance or natural or historic resource importance. Public input will also be accepted by mail or email in the form of a printed or PDF copy of the survey.
“Understanding how, when and where people recreate throughout Wharton State Forest is key for the State Park Service to develop plans that are representative of the diverse users who come to visit from around the state and country, while protecting this nationally recognized unique environment,” said John Cecil, Assistant Commissioner of State Parks, Forests & Historic Sites. “After compiling these data, we will hold additional public meetings to review the findings and decisions regarding access.”
The results of the survey will be used to enhance Wharton State Forest’s map to clearly define designated safe and legal routes for vehicle usage, while protecting culturally and ecologically sensitive areas. Upon completion of the stakeholder process, these efforts to define safe and legal vehicle access routes on Wharton’s improved and unimproved roads will serve as the model for protection of other state-managed lands throughout the Pinelands.
Interested residents can register for the meeting at http://njparksandforests.org/wharton/
Meetings with key stakeholder groups, including the Pinelands Commission, to provide input on this process have begun. Additional public stakeholder meetings on appropriate vehicle access will be scheduled after the DEP receives and reviews the result of the survey.
In considering the future of Wharton State Forest, the State Park Service will develop a permit system for use of unimproved roads throughout the forest, modeled after the Department’s experience implementing the Mobile Sport Fishing Vehicle Permit system at Island Beach State Park. Permits would be issued for vehicle use of designated safe and legal routes identified through input received from the visitor use survey and future stakeholder meetings through early 2023. The development of a permit system will enhance the State Park Police’s ability to assess vehicle use and protect sensitive resources throughout the forest.
Visitors are reminded that off-road vehicle use of any kind (for example, ATVs and other motorized vehicles) is illegal on all 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.
Efforts to curb illegal off-road vehicle activity is underway. 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 -$500 for a first offense, $500 – $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.
Park visitors who encounter ATVs off established roads or see suspicious or illegal activities on the Department’s entrusted public lands, may call 1-877-WARNDEP (1-877-927-6337). Additionally, there is a Warn DEP iPhone and Android application which allows visitors to report environmental abuses, including off-road vehicles. For information on how to download the apps, visit: www.nj.gov/dep/warndep.htm
Wharton State Forest is within the New Jersey Pinelands, a more than 1 million acre region that is recognized for its unique natural resources and is classified as a National Biosphere Reserve of national and international significance.
Located within Wharton State Forest is Batsto Village, a former bog iron and glassmaking industrial center from 1766 to 1867 that reflects the agricultural and commercial enterprises that existed in New Jersey during the late 19th century. The forest is also home to Atsion Recreation Area, which is a popular destination for picnicking, swimming and exploring. Wharton State Forest contains multiple rivers and streams for canoeing, hiking trails, miles of unpaved roads for mountain biking and horseback riding, and numerous lakes, ponds and fields ideal for wildlife observation. Nine campgrounds are dispersed throughout the forest, two of which are only accessible by foot or paddle.
The DEP lists 43 animals 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.
For more about New Jersey’s Parks, Forests & Historic Sites, visit www.njparksandforests.org/
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